RB Cadillac Williams needs just one more 100-yard rushing game to tie the Bucs' single-season record in that category
Two Sundays in a row, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have found themselves down a touchdown in the fourth quarter, holding the ball on their own end of the field and knowing they probably wouldn't see it again if they gave it up.
Two Sundays in a row, the Buccaneers' offense has come through, driving 54 yards for the score (and game-winning two-point conversion) against Washington, then marching 71 yards to tie Atlanta in an eventual 30-27 victory.
But, as Head Coach Jon Gruden pointed out on Monday, the circumstances of those two drives was subtly different. Against the Redskins, there were just under two minutes left on the clock when Tampa Bay took over, holding only one timeout. In Atlanta, there was exactly half of the final period left when the Bucs got the ball, though Michael Vick and the Falcons had been so unstoppable in the second half that the likelihood of a last defensive stand by the Bucs seemed uncertain.
Thus, the Bucs fate in the Washington game rested largely in Chris Simms' hands, and he delivered, hitting Edell Shepherd on a 30-yard touchdown pass. The fuller clock in Atlanta's Georgia Dome meant the Bucs had another option: Cadillac Williams' legs. And he delivered.
Simms does and should get credit for directing a second straight clutch drive, and his 12-yard pass to tight end Anthony Becht as he was being buried by a blitzing linebacker was one of the game's grittier plays. But Williams was the key factor on the drive, gaining 40 of its 71 yards on six touches. Every one of his five runs and one reception on the 11-play march was a success, gaining at least four yards.
Simms, who took over for injured starter Brian Griese four games ago, is looking sharper and more capable of leading a winning team every weekend. Wide receiver Joey Galloway, though he didn't catch a pass in Atlanta, has been the team's most consistent and explosive offensive force, and fellow receiver Michael Clayton showed signs of regaining his status as an impact player in Atlanta. Mike Alstott is again an undeniable weapon around the goal line. The offensive line has exceeded expectations and the tailback depth is good with Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham.
The decisive factor for how good this Buccaneer offense is going to be – and it probably needs to be better than it has in awhile as the team keeps getting into shootouts – will be Williams, the September sensation who has gone through a couple of rough months in his rookie season. On Sunday in Atlanta, it appeared as if the Buccaneers will have that red-hot, early-season Cadillac back for the playoff stretch run.
"I thought he started to get his rhythm back," said Gruden. "He made some real good cuts to the backside, moved the pile, finished runs and made a key play as a receiver, as well, late in the game. I was pleased with him and hopefully he's got a lot left in the tank."
Williams famously opened the season with a total of 434 rushing yards during the Bucs' 3-0 start, setting a new NFL record for most yards in the first three games of a player's career. Then a left foot injury first suffered in Week Two flared up and kept him out of most of Game Four against Detroit, as well as all of the New York Jet and Miami Dolphin contests. Since Williams' return to action at San Francisco in Game Seven he has continued to struggle, not breaking 29 yards for four straight contests.
His foot has gotten better during that time, though, and his practice-field work has looked sharper every week. On Sunday, he put it all together again and had that long-awaited fourth 100-yard game. Even with his foot troubles, Williams is already just one 100-yard game away from tying the team's single season record of five, set by Ricky Bell in 1979 and matched by James Wilder in 1984 and '85 and Warrick Dunn in 1997.
Dunn was a rookie that season, like Williams. Coincidentally, he was on the opposite side on Sunday in the Georgia Dome, rushing for 82 yards to continue a career year. Both backs are considered smaller than the NFL norm, particularly Dunn, but both have always run with more power than they get credit for. On Sunday, the Bucs certainly treated Williams like a power back, coming out in a jumbo, three-tight end set and daring the Falcons to stop the run.
"That's the first time for me," said Gruden of starting a game with that personnel grouping. "We had a good counter play back to the weak side, it was well-blocked and Cadillac made a nice read. I thought from that point on, we were in good shape."
Gruden referred to the very first play, on which Williams cut back to his left, slipped through several tackles and galloped 30 yards downfield, setting up an eventual field goal. For a Tampa Bay team that was trying to set the tone with a rugged running attack, that was a very auspicious start.
"It was a big boost for our team on the first play when he broke off for a long run," said Simms. "It gave our whole offense confidence that we would be able to run the ball today."
As Gruden mentioned, Williams also made a critical play as a pass-catcher. After his runs of eight, four, six and five yards had helped the Bucs get down to the Atlanta 21, two Mike Alstott runs left them in a third-and-six at the 17. Simms dropped back to pass and immediately had two Atlanta blitzers in his face. He reacted quickly, tossing an outlet pass to Williams in the left flat, but he was hurried so the pass came out a bit high. Williams picked it out of the air nicely, then spun, made one tackler miss and surged forward for eight yards. That gave the Bucs a first down at the nine, and Williams ran it in on the next play to tie the game.
Williams wisely and accurately showered his offensive line with praise after the game, saying he often had several holes from which to choose. And indeed, on his touchdown run he was not touched by a Falcon.
"It was a play we call 'Power King,' where we're pulling the guard," said Williams. "Mike had a heck of a block, those guys up front came off the ball and the hole was wide as daylight."
The touchdown run was not his last big play, either. Derrick Brooks forced a fumble a few snaps later and gave the Bucs a chance to win the game with a field goal. Shelton Quarles' recovery came at the Atlanta 34, which would have meant a field goal try of about 52 yards. Kicker Matt Bryant was was certain he could make it from there but every yard closer would increase the Bucs' odds. The Bucs' first two plays got nothing, but Williams was able to slice off right tackle for eight yards on third-and-10. Bryant than hit the 45-yard game-winner.
In what seems like a very long time ago, Williams made huge plays at the end of Buccaneer road wins in Minnesota and Green Bay. On Sunday, he did it again, and the Bucs won on the road for the first time since that Week Three game against the Packers. That left the Bucs feeling very confident of this one important development for the upcoming playoff hunt: Cadillac is back.