The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had their fair share of injuries during training camp and preseason, but it appears as though the team will be close to full strength when they take the field for their regular season opener in New Orleans on Sunday.
Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia missed nearly half of training camp and three preseason games due to a calf injury. On Wednesday, Garcia suggested the injury was behind him.
"It doesn't bother me at all," Garcia said of his calf injury. "I'm free of any pain or discomfort, or soreness or stiffness. I feel it is as close to 100 percent if not 100 percent as it has been, so that is a good thing for me."
The Bucs offensive players have learned to appreciate Garcia, who helped Tampa Bay win the NFC South division in his Buccaneer debut in 2007.
"He's a guy that touches the ball on every play. He's the catalyst and we've got to help him make plays," Bucs wide receiver Ike Hilliard said of Garcia. "He was my first Pro Bowl quarterback. In my 11 years in the league I hadn't played with one until last year. I was excited about that and I'm excited about going into this year with him as our quarterback."
The calf injury wasn't the only obstacle Garcia had to overcome. He faced a few distractions, including his desire for a new contract and reports that linked Brett Favre to Tampa Bay before he eventually landed in New York.
But Garcia doesn't have time to focus on those issues now. He said he's focused on New Orleans' defense, which features new players and should be improved from a year ago.
"Well, [the Saints] definitely have tried to address the defense," said Garcia. "They brought in a great linebacker in [Jonathan] Vilma. They have good linebackers they have a good solid front four. They added a great pick out of USC [defensive tackle Sedrick Ellis] in the draft. I think they are trying to address their defensive backfield and secure that and lock that up. I think through the experience that they have had of the last couple of years of playing together; they are going to be a much better defensive football team than what they went through last year. We're getting ready for that. We're getting ready for the great challenge that they are going to put forth and the heat that they may bring. They are capable of bringing a lot of heat. You see that in the preseason the way they got after Carson Palmer in Cincinnati. They are much more sound defensively. They are much aggressive defensively, and they are much more capable of making some big plays."
Garcia was rusty when he played in the third preseason game vs. Jacksonville. After throwing just four interceptions in the 2007 regular season, Garcia tossed two picks vs. the Jaguars in the first half of that exhibition contest.
Head coach Jon Gruden said Garcia just needed to get some practice time and reps under his belt in order to shake off the rust. His teammates feel he has done that based on what they've seen from Garcia in recent practices.
"He didn't have the performance he wanted and was rusty, but he knows that," said Bucs fullback B.J. Askew. "Jeff knows what he has to do. You're not going to get more of a mindset in terms of how to be a professional than what you get in Jeff. I think he'll be fine."
Askew also missed a good portion of camp and the preseason with an ankle injury that required surgery in August. He has returned to practice and said he's able to play vs. the Saints.
"I'm definitely ready," said Askew. "I've been taking all mental reps, of course. Just coming out here on the field I feel like I haven't missed a step. I feel a lot better. I'm ready to roll."
Askew played in 13 games (nine starts) last year and missed action during the 2007 season due to a lingering ankle injury. The Bucs signed him to a contract extension during the offseason, and he has been anxious to give the team a return on its investment, which meant having his ankle taken care of so he could be ready for the start of the regular season.
"Sometimes as players we're really hardheaded and try to push through injuries anyway, but the thing I like about our organization here is they want you to be healthy and do the right thing," said Askew. "I know there are other organizations that would have tried to push me out there on the field and tell me to play through it. But our staff came to me and said, ‘Let's get this thing right so that on opening day you're ready to roll.'
"I had my injury last year, and it doesn't get better during the season. It doesn't get better until the season is over. I look back on how I played with that injury and I don't know how I did it. I pride myself on being a tough guy, but [former Jets running back] Curtis Martin was the toughest guy I ever played with. He played through all sorts of things and never once complained about it. I try to be tougher than him."
The Bucs are also getting healthier on the defensive side of the ball. Defensive tackle Jovan Haye missed the majority of training camp and all four preseason games with a groin injury.
Haye notched six sacks last season and couldn't have played in a regular season game had it taken place a few weeks ago. However, Haye said he's 100 percent healthy and ready to play heading into the regular season opener.
"I would have liked to have played in preseason and get some reps, but that's going to come this week in pads as we prepare for the Saints. I just want to stay focused. I feel the physical part will come because I'm 100 percent ready."
Second-year safety Sabby Piscitelli injured his knee during the preseason finale last week, but he will suit up and play vs. the Saints.
"I'm 100 percent," Piscitelli said. "I'm good."
The one player Tampa Bay will be without is guard Davin Joseph, who still is sidelined with a broken foot he sustained during the exhibition contest vs. New England on Aug. 17. Joseph will miss several weeks due to the injury. In the meantime, rookie Jeremy Zuttah will start at right guard in his place.
"We're anticipating Zuttah being the starter, and we're confident in him," said Gruden. "Hopefully nothing happens to change that in the next couple of days."
Tampa Bay's first injury report was released on Wednesday afternoon. New league rules mandate that an injured player that missed one or more plays of practice must be listed as limited on the injury report.
Garcia and tight end Ben Troupe (foot) had full participation in Wednesday's practice. Joseph was held out of practice. Askew, wide receivers Antonio Bryant (knee), Michael Clayton (chest) and Galloway, Haye, offensive lineman Sean Mahan (team decision), linebacker Matt McCoy (groin), Piscitelli and defensive tackle Ryan Sims (thigh) were limited in practice today.
MAHAN PLEASED TO RETURN TO TAMPA BAY The Buccaneers traded an undisclosed draft pick to the Pittsburgh Steelers in exchange for center/guard Sean Mahan on Tuesday.
Less than 24 hours after the trade was made official, Mahan was at One Buccaneer Place getting reacquainted with his teammates and head coach Jon Gruden's playbook.
"I was surprised," Mahan said of being traded to Tampa Bay. "I didn't know what the situation was here in Tampa. Once I learned I was going back to Tampa it was just kind of a scramble. There was no time to think or react. It was a matter of getting packed and making sure my wife and kid were good before I took off. It's good to be back here."
Mahan originally entered the NFL in 2003 as a fifth-round draft pick with the Buccaneers. He played at both guard spots and the center position before joining Pittsburgh as a free agent in 2007. He's happy to be back with the Bucs.
"If all things would have been equal I think I would have preferred to stay," said Mahan. "It's a great city and my family and I love it here."
Mahan started 16 games at center for the Steelers last year. The Bucs traded Dan Buenning to the Chicago Bears in order to make room for Mahan on their roster. Mahan started 16 games at the center position for the Steelers last year and believes that experience will help him.
"The more you play the better you get," said Mahan. "That experience helped me tremendously. I had a chance to play against different teams and have different coaches. It offered up some different perspectives. Ultimately, I think I'm coming back here a much better player."
Tampa Bay traded Buenning and reacquired Mahan due to Mahan's playing experience at both center and guard, particularly the right guard position, where Joseph is out due to a foot injury.
"We wish Dan the best. He laid it on the line for us and I think he'll do well," said Gruden. "Sean Mahan comes in here with playing experience at the center position and each guard position."
BUCS AREN'T THE ONLY CHALLEGE FOR SAINTS Hurricane Katrina destroyed areas of New Orleans three years ago, so the Saints weren't about to take any chances when Hurricane Gustav approached earlier in the week.
With the category two hurricane approaching, the Saints left New Orleans and are spending the week practicing for Indianapolis. Even though the storm has come and gone, the Saints stayed in Indianapolis to practice at the vacant RCA Dome.
The Bucs still are scheduled to play the Saints at the Superdome in New Orleans at 1:00 p.m. on Sunday. While the severe weather did not damage New Orleans, the storm could serve as a distraction to the Saints.
But the Buccaneers still are expecting the Saints' best effort on Sunday, and rightfully so, evidenced by the fact that New Orleans defeated Carolina 23-20 in Week 1 of the 2005 season just days after Hurricane Katrina hit Louisiana.
"It's just like when they had to be displaced from Hurricane Katrina. When they came back they had a real good season," Haye said. "I don't know if they'll use this as motivation, but they'll be ready. They are a real good team on both sides of the ball."
UNDER PRESSURE The Saints offense, which ranked fourth overall in the NFL in 2007, is led by quarterback Drew Brees, a Pro Bowl-caliber player.
One of the main reasons why Brees is so effective is because of the protection he receives from his offensive line, which surrendered a league-low 16 sacks in 2007 but lost center Jeff Faine to the Bucs in free agency in '08.
Tampa Bay's defense had an inconsistent pass rush last year, but it did notch five sacks in two meetings vs. New Orleans. The Bucs know they must get after Brees in order to limit the Saints' offensive production.
"We have to get pressure on Brees," said Haye. "I think they only gave up 16 sacks last year, and we had [five] of them. Our goal is to get even more pressure on him, but that's going to be hard to do because he's a great quarterback and he gets the ball out quickly."
Second-year defensive end Gaines Adams said the success Tampa Bay's defense had vs. New Orleans last year and in the preseason (seven sacks in four games) in terms of pass rushing should help the Bucs as they prepare to face the their division rival.
"We're confident," said Adams. "It helps that we know that we can get after the quarterback and let the secondary sit back and do their job. This week is a huge challenge for us to see if we can get pressure on Drew Brees. He's a tremendous quarterback."
TEAM CAPTAINS ANNOUNCED The Bucs announced their team captains for the 2008 regular season on Wednesday.
The captains are quarterback Jeff Garcia and center Jeff Faine on offense. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, cornerback Ronde Barber and defensive tackle Chris Hovan are the team captains on defense. Safety Will Allen was selected as a team captain for the special teams unit.
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