Bucs HC Bowles updates status for Key OL prior to week 17

The Bucs have a very important game ahead of them on New Year’s Day as they host the resurgent Panthers in a “hat and t-shirt game.” Even at 7-8, they can wrap up the NFC South and gear up for a home game on Wild Card Weekend with a win over Carolina.

Of course it won’t be easy for Tampa Bay. Todd Bowles’ team has been one of the most up and down teams in the league this season and Carolina is a surprising 5-5 under interim head coach Steve Wilks. One of those five wins was against the Bucs, a 21-3 win in Week 7. So Bowles and his team are already up against it. It doesn’t help that a few key offensive linemen are also dealing with injuries.

Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Left tackle Donovan Smith missed last week’s game with a foot injury, while right tackle Tristan Wirfs returned after a three-week ankle injury only to aggravate that ankle again late overtime victory over Arizona. Not to mention, backup tackle Josh Wells went down in that game with a torn patellar tendon and will miss the rest of the season. So it goes without saying that the Bucs desperately need Smith and have Wirfs really ready to go.

With that in mind, Wednesday’s practice was a sight to behold as both Smith and Wirfs got their act together. However, they were officially listed as restricted participants on the injury report, and Bowles tempered expectations for them so early on. the week when speaking to the media after training.

“It’s early — we’ll see how it goes,” Bowles said. “It was a little light today, so we’ll see when we get into it tomorrow and Friday and see exactly where they are.”

As much as Bowles would like to play it by ear, Wirfs told the media that he will be ready to leave when it’s time for Tampa Bay and Carolina to kick off Sunday afternoon. He acknowledged there are some positions where his ankle is bothering him, but said he will be fine.

Having Smith and Wirfs back for Week 17 would be huge for an offensive line that will be tasked with slowing down Panthers edge rusher Brian Burns, who has 12.5 sacks this season.

Bucs will not have a center injury in Week 17

Bucs C Ryan Jensen

Bucs C Ryan Jensen – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

The Bucs offensive line hasn’t been the same this season without Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen. The veteran injured his knee on the second day of training camp and has missed the entire season so far, but there has always been a slight hope that he could come back at the end of the year or possibly before the playoffs. That hope seems more realistic than ever now that Jensen’s 21-day activation window is open.

The 31-year-old returned to the field on Wednesday and could come off injured reserve at any time in the next 21 days. But understandably, he won’t be back in action against the Panthers this week from missing five months of football. Bowles ruled him out for the game and made it clear the team doesn’t want to pressure Jensen to rush back.

“We have no expectations [for] him — it’s part of his rehab process,” Bowles said. “Having him there and seeing him there is a big lift for the guys. He was the anchor and he was the attitude guy when he was here, so it’s a big lift to have him there.

Jensen’s injury was never specified other than being a knee problem, and Bowles did not elaborate on details on Wednesday. And when asked if the Bucs would see Jensen return for Week 18 against Atlanta, he again stayed away from making any projections.

“The goal is for him to get healthy – this is all part of his rehabilitation now,” said Bowles. “We’re not even thinking about him getting pads right now. He is from day to day. We’ll have more reports as it goes on, but right now he’s just happy to run, do something – that’s good for him and it’s a good lift for him and it’s a good lift for the boys.

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