Slowly but surely, the Bucs are creeping toward fielding a healthy roster. Tampa Bay should get several key players back on Sunday, including outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Both edge rushers have been out for most of the past three games. Pierre-Paul has dealt with a torn rotator cuff all season, and the Bucs gave him three weeks to improve his health before the playoffs. Pierre-Paul hasn’t played since Week 15.
“He’s healthier,” Arians said on Wednesday. “He’s not totally healthy, but he’s healthier than he would have been playing. That was the plan all along, to get him as healthy as we possibly could for the playoffs.”
Pierre-Paul had a miserable regular season, posting just 31 tackles and 2.5 sacks. He was a shell of his typical self, largely due to playing through a number of injuries. A broken finger and torn rotator cuff forced Pierre-Paul to miss Weeks 3 and 4. When he returned, his impact wasn’t the same. Will he be closer to full strength after nearly a month off the field?
As for Barrett, Arians has been optimistic all along that he would be back for the Wild Card game. But during Wednesday’s walk-through, Barrett was spotted with a brace on his knee. Is the brace just pre-cautionary, or will Barrett need to play with it? How will it inhibit his movement against an elite pair of tackles?
The good news for the Bucs is that cornerback Jamel Dean appears to be okay. Dean went down with another injury on Sunday, this time favoring his hamstring. But the third-year cornerback practiced on Wednesday in a limited capacity. So did fellow cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who is also dealing with a hamstring issue.
Perhaps the two biggest defensive question marks for Sunday are outside linebacker Anthony Nelson and linebacker Lavonte David. Nelson hurt his ankle against the Panthers and did not practice on Wednesday. Expect the team to rest him all week and see if he can go on Sunday.
Meanwhile, David is the player every Bucs fan is watching with bated breath. If the team’s defensive captain can return from a foot sprain against the Eagles, it’ll be a huge defensive boost. The Bucs have struggled to stop the run and pass without David on the field. On Wednesday, the former All-Pro returned to practice, opening his 21-day window to rejoin the roster.
“Oh, it’s a huge addition if we can get him back out there,” Arians said. “Just being an All-Pro player, but also his leadership ability and everything that he brings would be a huge blessing if he can play.”
Shockingly, the Bucs have yet to play a single defensive snap this season with all their starters on the field. Could Sunday be the first day that happens?