WR Jacquez Green returned to practice on Thursday, unlike Derrick Brooks or Warrick Dunn
Derrick Brooks is 17 tackles shy of 1,000 for his NFL career, which has spanned exactly 100 games so far. The swiftness with which the Tampa Bay Buccaneers linebacker has neared that notable milestone reflects the speed with which he plays the game.
Given that this Sunday's opponent, Pittsburgh, is averaging nearly 34 carries per game and that Brooks is generally the Bucs' leading tackler, it would be no surprise to see him reach that four-digit plateau this weekend.
If he plays, that is.
Brooks would presumably be a key figure in the Bucs' attempts to stop RB Jerome Bettis, but the four-time Pro Bowler was in a baseball cap on Thursday, missing his second straight practice. He may not suit up on Friday, either, and Bucs Head Coach Tony Dungy does not want to go into an ultra-physical game against the Steelers with any players that are limited by injuries. The same close watch is being applied to RB Warrick Dunn, who like Brooks is recovering from a sprained foot.
"I don't know if they'll practice, but they should be available for Sunday," said Dungy of Brooks and Dunn. "Then we'll have to make the decisions. I don't think this is a game for guys who aren't full speed, so we'll see on Sunday if they're full speed or not. But I would expect everybody to play but Jeff (Gooch) and possibly Dexter (Jackson).
Dungy has ruled out the possibility of Gooch (shoulder sprain) playing and seems much less sure of the availability of Jackson (thigh bruise) than that of Brooks or Dunn.
"He's making progress but he's still a ways away," said Dungy of Jackson, who took a helmet to the thigh in Tennessee and missed two thirds of that contest. "He hasn't been able to run full speed yet."
Though Jackson's condition appears to be more of a problem, it is the status of Brooks and Dunn that once again is dominating discussion this week. Last week, those two key players missed most of practice and were considered game-time decisions. Both eventually played large roles in the narrow loss to the Titans, but probably were not at full strength.
Fortunately, neither Brooks nor Dunn worsened their sprains by playing against the Titans, so they may actually be in better shape heading into the Pittsburgh weekend.
"They're ahead of where they were last week, so that's what kind of leads me to believe they should play," said Dungy. "The injuries they have just take time. We could practice them, but they would be worse for wear on Sunday. Hopefully, they'll get to practice a little bit tomorrow. That would be the ideal."
Without Brooks, the Bucs would make changes at not one linebacker position but two. Shelton Quarles, who generally starts at the strongside 'backer position, would move over to the weakside to take advantage of his speed and coverage abilities. Alshermond Singleton, who usually splits time with Quarles on the strong side, would take over the position Quarles vacated. With experienced backup Gooch also out, the primary backup would become undrafted rookie Marq Cerqua, a training camp standout who has yet to be active for a game.
"Marq's going to do a good job," said Dungy of the fast and outspoken rookie. "He can fill in at all the positions for us and play on special teams. He's got a lot of energy, much like Jeff and Shelton and the rest of our guys."
Other injury updates: WR Jacquez Green returned to practice on Thursday after missing Wednesday's session. CB Dwight Smith, who has taken over the team's kickoff return duties, was added to the injury report on Thursday morning after suffering a mild hamstring strain on Wednesday, but he was able to participate in Thursday's workout.
The Bucs have alternated wins and losses through the first quarter of the season, a pace that almost certainly would not lead to a playoff berth. With two home games in a row on the schedule, the Bucs would like to begin their first multiple-game winning streak right now.
However, the first item on the agenda is to avoid a multiple-game losing streak, something the Bucs have struggled to do in recent Octobers. Tampa Bay's current struggles seem quite similar to those of 1998, 1999 and 2000, leading to concern that the team would dig itself another hole before a hot November and December finish.
"That's something we're very aware of," said Dungy. "In the past, we've had stretches where we've gone four or five weeks and haven't really got our game going. We want to avoid those two-game losing streaks this year, so this is a big game for us."
At the very least, the Bucs will not approach this critical period with complacency. In particular, the team's defensive line is on edge, irritated by generally good performances that have failed to yield the expected sack results.
"You can get a feel when we're all kind of ticked," said DT Warren Sapp of the D-line's meeting room. "All eight of us in there are ticked off. We came out to practice (ticked) and had a good day (on Wednesday). We need to do that again today.
"Our focus, our drive has never been deterred by how we're playing. It's always been the same. I guess it's just the application of what we're trying to do week in and week out that's troubling right now."
Dungy saw that focus again on Thursday, but wasn't particularly surprised. The team's star-studded front line often sets the tone for practice.
"They're intense," said Dungy. "They're usually intense, but no one likes to be criticized and they're getting their share of criticism. I think they'll play with a purpose. I don't worry about those guys too much."
"I didn't think we rushed as well at Tennessee as we had the first three games, but the first three games I thought we had exceptional rushes. It doesn't always fall the way you think it should, but those guys will be fine. They won't be the problem."
They won't allow themselves to be, to hear Sapp tell it.
"We're going to go our basics," he said. "That's always been our key. Whenever we got a little rattled, we went back to the basic fundamentals of 'feet, hands, stance, alignment and let's play.' That's where it starts on Sunday. That's what we've got as our focus right now: hands, stance, feet, alignment and let's go play.' Let's put some (quarterbacks) on the ground."