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Nickerson casts off injury, ready to get back in game

It took Hardy Nickerson less than a week to convince doctors to remove the cast from his sprained left ankle. After that, he has insisted on doing all the plastering on the field.

When the Pro Bowl linebacker went down on the first play of the game at Green Bay on Sept. 25, the Bucs knew their biggest problem wasn't going to be getting Nickerson back on the field. Rather, it was trying to keep him off of it until the injury healed.

Nickerson will return to the lineup Sunday afternoon at Candlestick Park against the 49ers. Although he is not 100 percent, these truths he holds self-evident.

The Bucs are an average defense without him. In the three games that Nickerson played this season, Tampa Bay's defense allowed an average of 289 yards. In the three games that Nickerson has been shelved, the Bucs have yielded 359 yards per game.

During that stretch, Tampa Bay's defense fell from sixth overall in the NFL to 14th.

But as much as anything, it was Nickerson's fire that abated from the Bucs' defense.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy," Nickerson said. "I don't go out on the field and do back flips or go in the locker room and throw things around and scream and holler. I try to lead in the huddle and on the field by playing good football, hard-nosed football, aggressive football. By being injured, that took me away from all of that. I found myself just sitting on the sidelines, especially in practice or in a game _ bored out of my mind. Wanting to be out there, can't be out there. Wanting to run, can't run. It was tough."

Two weeks ago, as the Bucs were being shellacked 34-13 by the Atlanta Falcons, it was more than Nickerson could take. Defensive coordinator Floyd Peters had decided to concede the rushing yardage to stop the Falcons' run-and-shoot passing game.

For most of the game, the Bucs played without a single true linebacker _ using safety Barney Bussey to cover the middle of the field and deploying six defensive backs.

"It made me sick," Nickerson said.

Nickerson doesn't try to minimize his importance to the Bucs, and figures to play a big role in stopping the 49ers.

"I think running the ball will be a lot more difficult," Nickerson said. "I'm sure you won't see the 14th-ranked defense in the league, you'll see the sixth-ranked defense in the league Sunday. That's a fact. I think by me being out there will add a big boost to the defense."

If you don't think so, consider this. Despite missing three games, Nickerson still leads the team in tackles as he had in each of the 19 games he's played in Tampa Bay.

At least Nickerson was better prepared for missing games. In 1989, he missed six weeks with a broken ankle and climbed the walls.

"I anticipated it," Nickerson said. "I knew when I'd sat out six weeks in '89 with a broken ankle it was pure agony. It was the toughest six weeks of my life. This has been pretty tough also. You never want to be in a position where you have to be forced away from something you love to do. This is something I love to do, and I hate to be away from it.

"It was tough. It gave me a little time to sit back and watch a lot of football, study a lot of film and think a lot about what I can do better and envision myself doing better. That said, I'll come back a better football player."

Nobody is happier to see Nickerson return than Peters, who was forced to use so many defensive combinations that he often had 10 or 12 men on the field. "He's an inspirational leader to us and a quarterback for the defense," Peters said. "He handles the mental part of the game easily, so the adustments will be a lot cleaner. I'm excited about having him back, but I realize we have to be patient until he gets back into football shape."

Without a sore ankle, Nickerson would be hard-pressed to slow the 49ers and all their weapons _ Steve Young, Jerry Rice, John Taylor, Ricky Watters _ to name a few.

"It gives you a headache," Nickerson said. "On Sunday, hopefully we can contain those guys and play some good football. Get physical with them and bump them around a little bit, which is something they haven't seen in a while.

"We're going to have to go out to the West Coast, which I guess has been a tough place to play in the past, and play a team in front of a packed house with great football players. That's not too tough a task, is it?"

A lot tougher without Nickerson, to be sure.

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