The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' best two game of the year occurred four weeks ago at home, with the starting offensive line of Donald Penn, Jeremy Zuttah, Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood leading the way. That's also the last time that starting five lined up intact.
The Buccaneers put up 420 yards of offense on October 16 to beat the first-place New Orleans Saints, 26-20. They actually had more yards against Indianapolis two weeks prior to that (466), but on 20% more snaps. The Bucs' 6.4 yards per play and 303 passing yards against New Orleans are the high-water marks of 2011.
It appears as if the Bucs will be back to full strength up front on Sunday against Houston, as Zuttah is poised to resume his role as the starting left guard. He started at center in Week Seven with Faine out due to a biceps strain, then suffered his own knee injury against the Chicago Bears and was out for the bye week and last week's rematch with the Saints. Faine returned from his injury to start the game in New Orleans.
Zuttah practiced without limitations all three days this week and is listed as probable on the Bucs' more detailed Friday injury report. Though Ted Larsen, who started 11 games at left guard in 2010 as well as this year's season opener, played well in Zuttah's absence, the job remains Zuttah's if he's cleared to play.
"If Zuttah's healthy enough to start, he'll start," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "And he made it through a week of practice so he'll start."
Those six linemen – this week's starting five plus the much-utilized Larsen – have given Tampa Bay very solid play up front. QB Josh Freeman has been sacked only 10 times in eight games and the Bucs rank second in the league in fewest sacks allowed per pass play despite facing some of the league's most talented pass-rushers during the first half of the season. Though the running game has been somewhat marginalized by the Bucs' tendency to fall behind early, the team is still averaging 4.2 yards per carry and lead back LeGarrette Blount is running at 4.4-yard clip.
On the other hand, the Bucs' defensive line will likely be missing a valuable member of its rotation as Frank Okam, a former Houston Texan, was listed as doubtful on Friday's report. He is still recovering from a calf injury he suffered in practice last week and has not participated in any practices this week. Similarly, linebacker Dekoda Watson suffered his groin injury on the practice field on Thursday and is now questionable for the Houston game.
The potential absence of Watson cuts the Bucs' options at linebacker, but Morris confirmed again on Friday that the same three players will start as last week. Geno Hayes, the weakside starter until last Sunday, will get playing time and the team still has several possible combinations to employ at linebacker.
"It's Quincy Black at weakside linebacker," said Morris, ticking off the starters for Sunday. "At strongside linebacker will go [Adam] Hayward, but we're going to play a little bit more Geno this week as well. He'll get a chance to get back in there and play. At the Mike obviously you've got [Mason] Foster. Hayward can go in and play some Mike for you and Quincy can go back to Sam for you. Those guys are interchangeable parts, but we'll start off with Hayward, Foster and Quincy Black."
Wide receiver Mike Williams (thigh) and safety Tanard Jackson (hamstring), both of whom practiced on Thursday and Friday without incident, are likely to suit up. Both are listed as probable on the injury report.
More Progress for Haynesworth
Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth, claimed off waivers on Wednesday, got in his second practice as a Buccaneer on Friday and built on the momentum of a strong debut on Thursday. The week-ending workout featured less contact but was still a good mental test for a player acclimating to a new team and system.
"Albert looked good Day Two," said Morris. "If it was a different day without the pads on – obviously with the big guys that's a little different. But it was fast and he got his assignments and all that stuff down. I didn't see any critical alignment errors; we didn't have to stop any plays to get him lined up. So that was all good stuff."
Albert's integration into the defense should be helped by the fact that the Bucs' scheme is closer to what he played for seven years in Tennessee than what he has been working in the last three years in Washington and New England.
"It's probably a lot more similar [to Tennessee] than what he's been in," said Morris. "We want him to get off and do a bunch of things to be disruptive, some of the [Gerald] McCoy role. It's probably a lot more similar to what he was doing in Tennessee, what he's going to be asked to do here in Tampa, than it has been his last two stops."
Morris doesn't think the differences in terminology between New England and Tampa will be much of a problem for Haynesworth, either, as the Bucs' scheme isn't overly complicated by design.
"I try to make it easy for them," said Morris. "I try to make it so all the guys can play fast and have the ability to pick it up pretty quickly, so you can put guys where you want to put them. If you do some things that require more thinking then they play a little bit slower."
Barring a setback, Haynesworth is expected to play against the Texans on Sunday. As of Friday, Morris still wasn't ready to predict a rough number of snaps his newest lineman will face, but that's partly because the situation could be fluid on game day.
"We'll see," said the coach. "We've just got to get him out there and go play. He's done a nice job at practice this week, taking all the reps that we require him to take. He's done a nice job of going out there and being physical. He looks to be in pretty good shape, as far as a man that size. So we've got to go see. Tampa's a little bit different place. It's going to be 80 degrees. We've got to see where he is and how well he can get through and how well he can play there."
A Solid Wall
The Buccaneers' defense has recorded just 12 sacks so far this season, 10 of which came during a three-game win streak against Minnesota, Atlanta and Indianapolis. At that point, after Week Four of the season, it looked like the team's youth-oriented pass rush was heating up and wouldn't look back over the last three months of the season.
The loss of McCoy in Week Five, however, appears to have slowed down the process. He has played only a few snaps since and is now out for the year, and the Bucs have just two sacks over their last four games. The addition of Haynesworth could help with that issue, if he can regain the penetrating form of his Tennessee days, but it won't be easy to get back in gear this weekend. Houston, which ranks second in the NFL in rushing and 13th in sacks allowed per pass play, boasts one of the league's best and most cohesive O-Lines.
"That's not a stretch," said Morris, praising the Texans' offensive front. "These guys play in such unison, they play tough, they play hard, they're nasty. They do a really great job with their scheme. That's a reason they run the ball so effectively. That's also the reason why they pass the ball so effectively – they make it all look alike, the play-action passes and the things of that nature."
Houston also makes use of cut-blocking techniques more frequently than any team the Bucs have faced yet. That can put defensive linemen at ease, as many don't appreciate the technique, but Tampa Bay's coaching staff believes it has prepared its defenders well for that possibility.
"You can't simulate it; it's almost impossible to simulate," said Morris. "You've got to get out there and teach them, you've got to drill them. [Defensive Line Coaches] Keith Millard and Grady [Stretz] did a nice job of teaching those guys how to get their hands down and stay on their feet. We talked about the importance of it at the beginning of the week. We talked about their scheme, we talked about them being the best. Those guys are great at what they do and we've got to go out there and be able to compete.
"It's been nice to have Albert around to talk about playing in that division. He has a little bit of experience playing against that type of scheme, so it's been great for those guys to work together. We have some quicker, faster guys that it won't bother as much. Brian Price is quick and fast. So hopefully we can stay on our feet and make some plays in the backfield."