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Reinforcements on the way for resilient Bucs ... at some point

Head coach Bruce Arians still can’t say when most of his injured players will return to action. But when they do, look out.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) looks to get past Bucs inside linebacker Kevin Minter (51) during Tampa Bay's 28-22 win Thursday night in Philadelphia.
Eagles quarterback Jalen Hurts (1) looks to get past Bucs inside linebacker Kevin Minter (51) during Tampa Bay's 28-22 win Thursday night in Philadelphia. [ RICH SCHULTZ | AP ]
Published Oct. 15
Updated Oct. 16

TAMPA — One of the NFL’s prevailing myths is that players generally dread Thursday night games. The truth, however, lies somewhere between abhor and adore.

Though players don’t necessarily relish Thursday contests, they don’t mind them. The unforgiving physical toll of two games in five days (Sunday and Thursday) is offset by a de facto bye weekend on the back side.

For the Bucs, the back side couldn’t arrive soon enough.

A team already banged up before its brutal stretch of three games in 12 days that ended Thursday night returned to Tampa on figurative fumes in Friday’s wee hours. The Bucs’ collective limp got more profound Thursday against the Eagles when 33-year-old cornerback Richard Sherman exited Lincoln Financial Field with a pulled hamstring in the first quarter and never returned.

Not counting Sherman, the top six members of the secondary rotation already have missed 11 games this season, seven more than those six missed in all of the 2020 regular season. At some point, the reinforcements will come off injured reserve and replenish the depth chart, especially in the defense’s back end.

But exactly when that will be remains anyone’s guess.

“It’s still going to be a crapshoot that way,” coach Bruce Arians said Friday afternoon, roughly 15 hours after a 28-22 win.

The only injured player Arians seemed confident of having back for the Oct. 24 home game against the Bears was safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who has missed the last two contests while in concussion protocol.

The forecast remained murky for Sherman (who hadn’t received an MRI exam as of early Friday afternoon), fellow cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting (elbow) and Carlton Davis (quad), tight end Rob Gronkowski (ribs) and linebacker Lavonte David (ankle).

When asked who might not be in play for the Bears game, Arians said, “I can’t really say, because they’re making progress, but it’s not real fast.”

If any solace can be taken from that burgeoning injury list, it’s the depth the Bucs are developing.

Offensively, tight end O.J. Howard on Thursday had his best game since returning from his ruptured Achilles suffered last October, catching six passes for 49 yards. His only missed target was a Tom Brady overthrow on a corner route on a fourth-and-3 gamble in the fourth quarter.

“I wouldn’t say he’s 100 percent for where he was, but he’s real close,” Arians said. “When we have all those tracking devices on him, I’m anxious to see how fast he was running (Thursday) night, and he’s hit a couple of good ones in practice, about 18 mph.”

Defensively, coordinator Todd Bowles — missing three opening-night starters, including both corners — blended his coverages and interspersed some blitzes to mostly neutralize the Eagles’ run-pass option and hold dual-threat quarterback Jalen Hurts in check.

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Both of the Eagles’ first two touchdowns were set up by pass-interference penalties (of 45 and 50 yards), and the hosts had only 99 total yards after three quarters. Hurts had a modest passing day (12-of-26, 115 yards, one touchdown, one interception) while being sacked twice, and managed 44 yards on 10 carries.

Among the ensemble that helped contain him were cornerback Dee Delaney (46 of 52 possible defensive snaps), inside linebacker Kevin Minter (46), cornerback Jamel Dean (52) and nickel corner Ross Cockrell (51).

“It was just a testament to what our game plan was throughout the week,” nose tackle Vita Vea said. “It being a short week, our coaches did a good game plan for us putting us in the right position to be successful, and we all came together throughout those three quarters to put together a great defensive stand.”

Arians concurred.

“I thought the read-option was nonexistent in that game,” he said. “Every time I think (the Eagles) tried it, it lost yards. (Bowles) had a great plan for that. I can’t say enough about Todd in taking the pieces that he has and putting them all together and having a hell of a game plan to win the ballgames.”

Just imagine the possibilities when all the pieces are at Bowles’ and Arians’ disposal.

“There’s going to be injuries. It’s just never going to stop. It’s the history of the game,” Arians said. “I think, knock on wood, three or four weeks from now, we get some guys back and we could have a really deep, good football team.”

Contact Joey Knight at Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

Related: Banged-up Bucs hold on for victory in Philadelphia

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