TAMPA — The Bucs didn't play last week, but few teams gained more than Tampa Bay, short of picking up a win.
Besides the fact that the Saints (5-3) lost to the previously winless Rams — setting up an NFC South first-place showdown Sunday in New Orleans with Tampa Bay — the banged-up Bucs (4-3) got close to full-strength.
Four starters, including defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (ankle), linebacker Mason Foster (ankle), center Jeff Faine (biceps) and running back LeGarrette Blount (knee) are expected back, with coach Raheem Morris saying the team is "as healthy as it's been."
"The bye week," tackle Donald Penn said, "came at a good time."
Considering the Saints boast the league's second-rated offense, getting McCoy and Foster back is huge up the middle.
Since McCoy was hurt in the Oct. 9 loss at San Francisco, the Bucs have racked up just two sacks. They rotated Roy Miller, Da'Quan Bowers and Frank Okam to take McCoy's place, though Okam will not play Sunday due to a calf injury.
"(Replacing McCoy) is pretty big shoes to fill," Miller said. "He's just a dominant penetrator and pass rusher and not too many guys are like him in the league. When a guy like that goes down, it's just hard to replicate."
Morris calls McCoy "our engine," pointing out that McCoy and Price "create some disruption for us that we don't have with other players. With McCoy, we get a chance to change the line of scrimmage and change where the ball's handed off and some of the position points from the quarterback. We get a little bit more of a pass rush."
Foster tried to play in the loss to the Bears on Oct. 23 in London, but he left in the first quarter after realizing his aggravated ankle injury held him back. The absence of the rookie starting middle linebacker, who took over play-calling duties this season, likely played a role in Bears running back Matt Forte rushing for 145 yards on 25 carries. Foster said he's feeling a lot better and is "ready to go."
"You miss his fire, miss his playmaking ability," linebacker Geno Hayes said of Foster. "You miss the young guy showing he can do everything that you ask him. It's great to have him back."
Faine, who had a biceps strain in the Oct. 16 win over New Orleans, will solidify a line that likely will play without guard Jeremy Zuttah.
And the backfield, which was nearly bare in London after Earnest Graham went out with a season-ending knee injury, will get a big boost from Blount.
Blount, who missed the past two weeks with a left knee sprain, likely will play most downs, and he also allows the Bucs to use a two-back set. That was difficult to do against the Bears with Kregg Lumpkin as the only healthy back left.
Penn said that made Tampa Bay one-dimensional, and it's no coincidence quarterback Josh Freeman threw four interceptions. The team is 3-0 when Blount gets at least 13 carries.
"Having more than one running back will mean a lot," Penn said. "Last week, everybody was talking about, 'Why weren't we running the ball?' You guys don't understand, we had one back. It's tough. Everybody in London … some of the people don't really know too much about football, but they knew we were passing. Having LeGarrette back is going to be really, really big for us."
Being healthy doesn't guarantee victory by any stretch, but the Bucs feel good they'll have almost all their weapons.
"This is the long stretch, this is what makes or breaks you," Penn said. "This shows the good teams from the bad ones, this long stretch right here. We've got our work cut out for us."
Joe Smith can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.