Danny Lansanah will be starting for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this Sunday against the Carolina Panthers. Where exactly Lansanah will line up is not yet certain.
At this point, it doesn't look like it will be on the weak side, where he started Games 12 and 13 and finished Game 14. It could be in the middle, where he played the majority of last Sunday's game in Detroit. If things go as well as possible for Lansanah's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, his next start would be back where he played from Weeks 5-11, on the strong side.
The question marks are Lavonte David's progress through the NFL's concussion protocol and Mason Foster's recovery from an Achilles tendon sprain. The answer, one way or another, will be Lansanah.
At this point, Lansanah's story is fairly well-known among Buc fans, and that in itself shows what a season it has been for a player who was largely unknown when training camp started. Lansanah recently became the first player in franchise history to start at all three linebacker positions in a 4-3 defensive front in the same season; given that experience he now has under his belt, he has become the ultimate Band-Aid for a Buccaneer defense that has had a new lineup nearly every week of the season due to injuries.
So, where will the Bucs need to put that Band-Aid in Week 15? It's looking less and less like it will be at weakside linebacker, where Lavonte David has a very good chance of lining up. Lansanah filled in for two games while David was recovering from a hamstring strain, and then he moved back to that spot in Detroit when David hit his head on the knee of a Lions receiver. That blow immediately started the aforementioned concussion protocol, a process with which the Buccaneers would never cut corners. As it has turned out, the evaluation on David has been very positive and it doesn't appear as if he will have to miss any more time. He has practiced on both Wednesday and Thursday on a limited basis.
"Lavonte is doing well," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "There's no issues with Lavonte's [concussion]. He's cleared, he's good to go and he should be alright."
Smith is also pleased to see that David did not experience a setback with his hamstring injury during his roughly three quarters of play in Detroit. The Buccaneers are obviously a better team with their first-team All-Pro linebacker on the field and they would love to see him put a cap on a very good season by turning in some of the big plays that marked his 2013 campaign.
"Hamstrings can really knock you back a little bit, but it seems like he's back to 100 percent and is good to go," said Smith. "When I describe him I say the best outside linebacker [in the NFL], I'm talking about a guy that drops into coverage and isn't a rush outside linebacker. With that, Lavonte will tell you that he wants more interceptions and we have to get him on that big play chart more, which he is capable of doing. There's no limit to what he can do with his physical abilities."
Foster, the team's starting middle linebacker, did not play in Detroit, which is why Lansanah found himself facing yet another challenge. Foster also did not practice on Wednesday, but he returned in a limited fashion on Thursday, improving his chances of being back in action against the Panthers. The Bucs would probably be satisfied if they could just make it through the game with Lansanah playing in just one spot; by the end of the Detroit game Tampa Bay had its only three healthy linebackers on the field.
"On Sunday, [Lansanah] ended up switching positions twice, playing both the MIKE and the WILL in the ball game," said Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier. "And that's tough, especially your first year in the system. It's tough enough just to learn one position, much less the MIKE, where you have to get everyone lined up and you have to be aware of the other guys at linebacker and what they're doing. But to his credit, he's been able to handle it. I'm sure it's kind of taken away from some things – we were just going through our walk-through, and there were some new things for him at a new position. So, it's challenging, but that's the plight that we've been in because of injuries. He's done a terrific job of having to learn all three positions and play all three positions for us this season."
If David and Foster are both in the starting lineup, then Lansanah would presumably go back to the strong side spot, though the team might still use him as one of the two players on the field in nickel situations, depending upon how thoroughly Foster has recovered. That would be the best-case-scenario for the Buccaneers, who according to Frazier see their Band-Aid 'backer as fitting best on the outside.
"[Lansanah] does some things that you like, but I don't know, necessarily, if we're looking at him as a future MIKE," said Frazier. "We liked the things that he did outside when we had him outside full-time. It's just, because of the injuries, he's had to play MIKE off and on. But we liked the things he did outside as well, his playmaking ability. We'll see as we go forward. He may have to play MIKE again, depending on what Mason's health situation is, but, ideally, we'd like for him to be an outside 'backer. But we'll see what happens."
If Lansanah is pressed into service again in the middle, then the SAM job would once again go to Orie Lemon, who wasn't even on the roster at the beginning of October. The Bucs plucked Lemon off the Dallas Cowboys' practice squad when they had a previous rash of LB injuries, targeting the young but unproven defender because he had worked in schemes similar to what the Bucs run. They didn't necessarily envision him playing more than a reserve role for the rest of this season, however.
"He's done a good job under the circumstances," said Frazier. "We were looking at him more for depth on special teams and helping us to shore up our special teams, and all of a sudden he's thrust into a starting role. He's made some good plays for us. He's tackled well, done a good job in his run fits, and done a pretty good job in coverage as well. He's been a pleasant surprise and we need him just to keep coming along. He's going to continue to, seems like, get more snaps."
To be sure, somebody is going to take the snaps at the three linebacker spots for Tampa Bay on Sunday. If need be, in addition to those mentioned above, special teams ace Dane Fletcher or the just-signed Jason Williams can fill in if needed. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they have a player in Danny Lansanah who gives them the flexibility they need to deal with whatever cast of players they end up with on Sunday.