Right on schedule.
That's the mantra from the Buccaneers and QB Josh Freeman, who had the soft cast removed from his fractured right thumb in anticipation of resuming practice next week.
Freeman fractured the tip of his right thumb in a preseason game against Kansas City 10 days ago and the Bucs expect him to return in time for the Sept. 12 regular-season opener against Cleveland.
"Definitely, I'm making progress," said Freeman, who watched Monday afternoon's workout from the practice field. "I'm in just a splint now and everything's right on schedule. We've got it immobilized and it's definitely healing. I'd like to be back on the practice field starting with our preparations for the Cleveland game next Monday."
Coach Raheem Morris continues to be optimistic Freeman will be ready when the games count.
"I trust him enough to let him go out on the field this week," Morris said. "Everything's going the right way for him ... everything's on schedule. I'm not supposed to say this, but Josh was out there gripping a ball the other day."
According to Morris, every Bucs player should be available to dress against Cleveland.
That includes G Davin Joseph, WR Maurice Stovall and S Sabby Piscitelli, who all are scratched from Thursday night's final preseason tuneup at Houston.
Joseph did not play against Jacksonville on Saturday night due to a hip flexor incurred during practice last week. Stovall hasn't played since the exhibition opener at Miami because of an ankle injury.
Piscitelli, a starter in 2009 who is now backing up newcomer Sean Jones, suffered a mild concussion during the 19-13 loss against the Jaguars.
"Davin's good," Morris said. "He got the hip flexor and he'll be out this week. It's not worth it to force the issue."
Feeling his way: Bucs RB Clifton Smith, who made the Pro Bowl after the 2008 season as a return specialist, is fighting off the rust and the calendar.
After missing the first two preseason games because of swelling in his right knee that was diagnosed as gout, Smith struggled against the Jags.
He fumbled his only kickoff return out of bounds and took a punt back 2 yards, so he's looking to rebound against the Texans two days before the Bucs must whittle the roster to reach the 53-man limit.
"Luckily, it's a short week and I've got to get that last game out of my brain fast and come out against Houston and do what I do best," said Smith, who suffered two concussions last season. "I've got to prove myself every year because this game is all about finding someone to replace you. Every game is big for me."
Smith led the league by averaging 29.1 yards per kickoff return last year, but WR Micheal Spurlock has been impressive and could end up winning the job.
"When a ball carrier does not practice, ball carriers fumble," Morris said. "We see it every year in camp. Clifton's no exception from that. He's got to get back in the football groove, but we all know who Cliff is. He's a charismatic guy who loves to play this game. I'm not worried about his spirit being broken."
Dynamic duo: Although DE Michael Bennett boasts the only two sacks credited to Tampa Bay's defensive line, rookie DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price are starting to flash their disruptive talents.
"That's going to be a special combination," said C Jeff Faine, who faces Price and McCoy each day in practice. "McCoy has a lot of raw skills and a great nose for the game. Price is really quick off the ball. That first step is exceptionally quick. He has a knack for timing the snap count, which is rare at such a young age."