RB Warrick Dunn was splitting backfield time nicely with RB Earnest Graham before a back injury slowed him down
If the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' backfield can't quite recapture 2005 this weekend, it might at least be able to roll back the calendar to September.
The Buccaneers' coaching staff is leaning against keeping running back Cadillac Williams, the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year, among its 45 game-day inactives on Sunday against Minnesota. That may be in part because they will have the services of Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn.
Relatively healthy during the first six weeks of the season, Graham and Dunn helped the Buccaneers' rushing attack roll up 136 yards per game during the team's 4-2 start. At that point in the season, Graham had 72 carries for 404 yards and Dunn had 75 for 386. If you threw in their respective work in the passing game – 16 catches and 113 yards for Dunn, 12 and 110 for Graham – it was clear that the two had been given almost identical workloads.
And it was working.
However, fullback Byron Storer got hurt early in the last of those six games and Graham began selflessly filling in as a lead blocker. A week later, Dunn hurt his back before halftime against Seattle and Graham was back in possession of football for most of the second half. Dunn played only a few snaps in Dallas and not at all in Kansas City and Graham toiled through his own knee injury for a good part of the Chiefs game.
Fortunately for all involved in that revolving door of a backfield, the bye week followed and Dunn and Graham found their way to a better comfort level, if not necessarily full health. When the Buccaneers released their more detailed injury report on Friday, both Dunn and Graham were considered questionable, but Head Coach Jon Gruden sounded optimistic after practice.
"[Graham] is going to gut it out, he's going to grit it out just like pro football players do this time of year," said Gruden. "I've got good feelings for Earnest Graham and I think Warrick's ready to go."
Dunn practiced fully throughout the week while Graham was limited each day. They were also joined by fullback B.J. Askew, who hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in Week Three and is also questionable. Askew wasn't limited this week in practice and appears on the verge of making his long-awaited return.
"I think he is," said Gruden. "I don't know if you'll be able to see the full 100-percent product, but we need him. We need to have him and between the tackles it will hopefully help us some."
But, no, it doesn't appear as if Williams will be joining those backs in the rotation on Sunday, as he is likely to be selected as one of the eight game-day inactives. Williams was not on the injury report this week but he is actually making the most impressive comeback of all the backs. The fourth-year player hasn't seen live game action since the September 30, 2007 game in Carolina in which he suffered a season-ending knee injury.
Williams was activated from the PUP list on Wednesday, essentially taking the backfield spot of Michael Bennett, so it seems almost certain that he'll get a chance to play before the season is up. It probably won't be this weekend, however.
"I don't foresee him being a part of this game but we'll see how the next 48 hours unfold," said Gruden. "We seem to have had some injuries at the backfield position. If everything goes as planned I don't see him being active yet at this time. He took another step forward this week and that's exciting."
One Buccaneer, safety Jermaine Phillips, has already been ruled out for the game due to the forearm fracture he suffered in Dallas in Week Nine. He will almost certainly be joined on the inactive list by tight end Alex Smith (ankle) and quarterback Brian Griese (right elbow). Those two were designated as doubtful on Friday. Other than the aforementioned running backs, the only other "questionable" player for the Buccaneers is wide receiver Ike Hilliard (shoulder). Hilliard practiced without limits all week.
The uncertainty around Smith and the aching running backs made it difficult for Tampa Bay's staff to devise a very concrete game plan for Minnesota during the bye week. Now that Smith is officially doubtful, the Bucs know they have to adjust.
"It affects us, it really does," said Gruden. "Especially against a crowd like this. We've been a two-tight end, three-tight end operation, that's been a big part of our passing game, certainly, our pass protection, our running game. And Alex Smith has been the one tight end that has been our starter and has been our in-on-every-down type of guy. But we're excited to play. We've made some adjustments, and we still have a double-tight end set and we'll move on and do the best we can."
John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens will pick up snaps in Smith's absence, and the starter (or starters) at tight end will likely be determined by the specific play call on the first play of the opening drive.