Bucs activate Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen for Cowboys game

TAMPA, Fla. – Monday morning brought perhaps the biggest injury news in a promising week of returns for the Bucs: Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, out with a left knee injury since July, has been activated out of the injured reserve and will make his season debut. for Tampa Bay in Monday’s wild-card game against the Cowboys.

The Bucs hope to be as healthy as they’ve been all season, a week after resting nine players dealing with injury or illness in hopes of having them when it matters.

A lingering injury concern for Tampa Bay has been on the interior offensive line, where the top four options were limited by injuries in some form last week in practice. And for Tom Brady, who may be playing in the final game of a 23-year NFL career, the position has a lot to do with his comfort level during any given game.

“A lot,” Brady said Friday when asked about the importance of the position to him. “It’s a very important position. There’s a part of it that’s really nice to know exactly what you’re dealing with. Sometimes it’s new and you just have to deal with it. [with it]. Every position is covered. I think the center quarterback is naturally unique. … You’ve got to have a lot of people come when guys are beat up and hurt and knocked out. Hopefully we’ll see who’s ready to come out and who can come out and play well.”

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The Bucs lost Jensen in the second practice of training camp, dropping a promising season, removing the tone of the offensive line, a veteran leader who has always been the first to protect his quarterback, during and after a play . They won a Super Bowl with Jensen under center in the 2020 season, and he earned his first Pro Bowl honor last season.

When Brady came out of a brief retirement this spring, the Bucs’ next move was to bring back Jensen on a three-year, $39 million deal with two years guaranteed. So when Brady saw Jensen go down in practice, when he immediately realized the severity of the injury and its impact on the season, the quarterback knelt for a moment.

The Bucs haven’t shared the details of Jensen’s injury, but they made a point of not placing him on injured reserve until the day after making the final cuts, moving him to their initial roster to leave open the possibility that it would return at some point. period, at the end of the season. For five months, the answer was that there was only a small chance Jensen could return, and even then, he could be in the playoffs.

But three weeks ago, the Bucs designated Jensen to return from injured reserve, opening a 21-day window that would allow him to practice with the team, testing his knee every day as he moves toward a potential return. Now he’s back on the roster, and the Bucs really need him.

Robert Hainsey, a 2021 third-round pick out of Notre Dame, took over for Jensen and has handled the starting job well, playing every offensive snap all season. But Hainsey tweaked his hamstring early in last week’s regular-season finale at Atlanta, a game in which the Bucs didn’t play a starting offensive tackle to give them their best chance to be healthy for the playoffs .

Hainsey was replaced in the game by starting left fielder Nick Leverett, another freshman starter who hasn’t missed a snap in the past 10 games after taking over for rookie Luke Goedeke, who had been struggling in left field during the first two months of the season. Leverett played every game against the Falcons but left the field with knee and shoulder injuries, has barely practiced this week and is listed as “doubtful” to play against the Cowboys. Even fourth-choice John Molchon, who made his NFL debut at defensive end against the Falcons last week, was limited by an ankle injury this week and is considered questionable.

Suddenly, Tampa Bay is healthy all over the field — tackles Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs will play, helping the Bucs better handle a passing talent like Dallas’ Micah Parsons. Defensive tackles Vita Vea and Akiem Hicks are both healthy, and the Bucs are 6-1 this season when both play at least 10 snaps, compared to 2-8 when neither does. In the secondary, they’ll have their top three corners and top three tight ends all healthy and playing for the first time since Week 4.

The lingering question remained at center and left center, a limiting factor in the Bucs’ offensive success all season. Tampa Bay has had the league’s worst passing game in the league, and while the team hasn’t given up many sacks, that’s more a function of Brady adjusting his internal clock and getting rid of the ball with great speed with the aim of self-preservation. . For the 45-year-old quarterback, that has proven to be smart, as three playoff teams this weekend had their No. 3 quarterback on the field, two of them knocked out that way. The Bucs haven’t had the same passing threat that was a central part of their 30-point-per-game average the previous two seasons, but their quarterback survived to reach the playoffs for the 14th straight season.

For Bucs fans, that possibility has been a motivating source of optimism and confidence for five months: Just make the playoffs, keep winning, and maybe Tom Brady will get his Pro Bowl center back. It feels the same way it did in 2020, when Vea was sidelined with a broken leg in October and was out for three months before returning in the NFC Championship Game, helping the Bucs to their second championship .

“They’re all sore, we’ll see,” Bowles said of his uncertain centers and guards Saturday morning. “They’ve got two and a half more days. We’ll give it time. We’ll probably have to make a decision. [on] on game day. … It’s still too early. We’ll make those decisions as we go, probably Monday.”

When Vea returned two years ago, he had been gone for 108 days. For Jensen, Monday’s game falls 172 days after his injury, nearly half a year of patient recovery and rehabilitation aimed at helping his team this season. Now, he’ll do it in a home playoff game, with everything on the line.

Greg Auman is the NFC South reporter for FOX Sports, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.

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