Earnest Graham (34) and Warrick Dunn could become just the second pair of Buc backs to top 800 rushing yards each in the same season
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 962 rushing yards through eight games, which makes the full-season projection math rather easy.
If the Buccaneers were to keep up the same pace on the ground for the second half of the season, they would finish with 1,914 rushing yards, which would be their best single-season total since 2000. The Bucs are also averaging an excellent 4.3 yards per carry which, if maintained, would be a new team record.
Those numbers are quite nice, of course, and it's accurate to say that the Buccaneers have been pleased with their running game this season. The thing is, those projections looked even nicer two weeks ago, when through six games Tampa Bay looked like a team that would get nearly 2,200 yards while averaging 5.2 per tote.
That points out the fallacy in early-season projections, of course (not that it will stop us), but it also underscores the difficulty the Bucs have had running the ball the last two weeks. In a win over Seattle and a loss at Dallas, the Bucs combined for 146 rushing yards, picking up only 2.5 yards per carry.
"We haven't run the ball to our standards the last two weeks, to be honest with you," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We can throw the ball here. We've got good receivers. I think we proved that against Seattle and we proved that earlier in the season. We've got to get more done running the football."
Against the Seahawks in Week Seven, the Bucs' running game was stuffed early but QB Jeff Garcia was so efficient and creative in the passing game that the team was able to build a big lead and then return to the ground attack in the second half. It wasn't necessarily pretty, but Tampa Bay was able to grind out 97 yards against the Seahawks, much of it in the fourth quarter.
The problem was more significant in Dallas, where the offense sputtered as a whole. Garcia was still sharp and the Bucs' attack often moved the ball between the 20s, but it finished with a season-low 262 yards overall and failed to reach the end zone for the first time all season. Trailing for the entire second half, the Bucs ran the ball just 20 times for 49 yards.
Circumstances played a part in that low rushing total, of course, just as they did in Chicago the only other time this year the Bucs have been held to less than 50 rushing yards. The Bears' ultra-aggressive defensive front plugged every gap at the line of scrimmage with a linebacker and essentially dared the Buccaneers to throw the ball, which they did an astounding 67 times in a 27-24 overtime victory. In Dallas, the Cowboys presented the Bucs with a defense that was strong and difficult to decipher up front but loaded with young and untested players in the secondary.
The Bucs' own lineup was a factor in the play-calling, too. Tampa Bay's backfield has been beset by injuries in recent weeks, making it difficult for the offense to utilize some sections of its run-game playbook.
Fullback B.J. Askew has been out since Week Three with a hamstring injury and his replacement, Byron Storer, is now on injured reserve. The Bucs' current starting fullback is their season-opening starting tailback, the incredibly unselfish Earnest Graham, and he's backed up by Jameel Cook, who wasn't on the team three weeks ago. The starting tailback is Warrick Dunn, who is dealing with a sore back and was given only one carry in Dallas. The Bucs are awaiting the return of former starting tailback Cadillac Williams from the Physically Unable to Perform List, but that is probably still a couple weeks off.
"We've got a shortage of backs, just so we're all on the same page," said Gruden on Monday following the loss in Dallas. "That also has had an impact on where we are right now. We didn't run the ball particularly well [in Dallas]. We had some stuffs on first down and just too many negative plays. It just wasn't a real productive day running the football and we've got to take a good look at that. Hopefully some backs can return to the backfield. We desperately need that."
Dunn ranks second on the team with 423 rushing yards and has been, when healthy, the perfect complement to Graham, who leads the way with 498. If the Bucs' first-half projections were to hold, Graham would finish the season with 996 yards and Dunn with 846, and that would mark only the second time in franchise history that the team had two runners go over 800 yards in the same year. Dunn was a part of that other tandem, too, as he ran for 1,026 yards in 1998 and Mike Alstott added 846.
That was 10 years ago and Dunn was 23 years old, with about 8,000 fewer yards on his odometer. However, the 33-year-old Dunn is still in extremely good shape, is still fast and quick on his feet and is still producing like a man in his 20s…when healthy. Gruden said the Bucs need that man back in their attack.
"Hopefully he's more healthy [this week]," said the coach, who appreciated Dunn and wide receiver Ike Hilliard gutting it out in Dallas despite injuries. "He played [in Dallas], he just clearly wasn't himself. I love that guy and what him and Ike Hilliard did yesterday for me, for our team, for our fans, for our organization speaks volumes. Their presence means a lot and their performance obviously means a lot. Hopefully they have a good week of practice. Hopefully they feel much better and can perform to the standards that they are capable of performing from a health standpoint and they'll deliver for us. Those are two good players. Those are war-daddies man. Those are great football players and we need them down the stretch."
Help for the rushing attack may arrive in the form of Kansas City's defense, though the Buccaneers will not go into Sunday's game at Arrowhead Stadium expecting an easy go of it on the ground. Kansas City ranks last in the NFL in rushing yards allowed per game as well as yards allowed per carry, giving up 196.9 and 5.6, respectively.
Of course, Tampa Bay is no more guaranteed to gain 200 rushing yards on Sunday than they are to hit exactly 1,914 at the end of the year. Those numbers represent an opportunity – an invitation, perhaps – not a certainty. The Buccaneers were running the ball with abandon through the first six weeks of the season and – despite hitting a valley due to injuries, circumstances and some lack of execution – they believe they can do so again in the season's second half. That's all a part of being a balanced team, which is the goal.
"It has something to do with seeing a couple pretty good run defenses," said Gruden. "We threw the ball for a lot of yards in the first half against Seattle and you know we are going to continue to run the football, but we have to be able to do both to be a great football team. You got to be able to run and pass. You got to be able to stop the run and you got to be able to stop the pass. You got to be able to do all of it to be great and that's what our goal is this year. Right now, based on our standards, I think we can do better running the football."