TAMPA — The next time C Jeff Faine lines up for the Bucs, you might already have started your holiday shopping.
Faine, the offensive line's stabilizing force, said he could miss anywhere from four to six weeks with a pulled quadriceps muscle. If his worst-case scenario of missing six weeks comes to fruition, Faine would return Thanksgiving weekend, when the Bucs travel to Baltimore on Nov. 28.
Faine, who was injured Sunday at Cincinnati, said the injury won't require surgery, but it needs significant time to heal.
It's a setback for the offense but also a personal one for a veteran who missed four games early last season with a triceps injury.
"I definitely want to be involved and be a part of this," Faine said. "It's getting right in the thick of things, in the meat of the schedule where we're playing a lot of divisional opponents, the games you love to play. I especially love to play this game (against the Saints). It's tough to go sit on the sidelines, but I'll just contribute as much as I can."
Jeremy Zuttah, a backup guard and part-time center, will take over for Faine in his first extensive action at center. Given the number of blitz-heavy teams the Bucs have faced, the role of the center in reading the defense and adjusting blocking assignments when necessary has been vital.
Asked if center was his natural position, Zuttah laughed and said, "It'll be my most natural position for the next couple of weeks."
One positive is that QB Josh Freeman, now in his second NFL season, is better prepared to handle the presnap offensive line calls. That was an area in which Faine played a bigger role last season because of Freeman's inexperience. Now, it's no longer essential.
"It's a huge asset for Josh to be where he is now and for him to have the mental grasp of the game that he does," Faine said.
Said Zuttah: "Faine is a guy who has played center for so long a lot of times you lean on him. … But it's mostly in the quarterback's hands and the adjustments come from the center."
NEW PUNTER: After releasing P Chris Bryan on Tuesday, the Bucs signed Robert Malone to replace him. Malone joined the Jaguars this year as an undrafted free agent from Fresno State, where he was the first-team All-Western Athletic Conference punter, averaging 45.2 yards and placing 17 punts inside opponents' 20-yard line.
Bryan ranked last among full-time punters, averaging 37.4 yards, and shanked several punts at inopportune moments.
FREEMAN HONORED: Freeman was named NFC offensive player of the week after recording a fourth-quarter comeback victory for the fourth time in his six wins as a starter. The Bucs scored 10 points in the final 86 seconds of the 24-21 win against Cincinnati, Freeman throwing for a career-high 280 yards.
The 22-year-old becomes the youngest Buccaneer since Jacquez Green in 1998 to win a player of the week honor.
"It's pretty cool," Freeman said of the honor. "But we've got to continue to work. It's an award that, really, the whole offense earned. We had a lot of guys make a lot of plays. The (offensive) line did a great job with the blitzes they were throwing at us and allowed us to really get it done."
MORE SABBY? Backup S Sabby Piscitelli, who came off the bench for injured starter Sean Jones and recorded an interception that set up the winning field goal Sunday, might have a bigger role going forward.
Coach Raheem Morris said he planned to use Piscitelli in a rotation even before the injury required him to enter the game. Jones, who was experiencing back spasms, said he expects to play this week against the Saints.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com.