The Bucs sent RB Warrick Dunn into some tight spaces on Sunday, but he broke free for 106 yards and two TDs
They weren't the first, but they were 'Thunder and Lightning' before Ron Dayne and Tiki Barber of the New York Giants took up that mantle this season.
Bruising fullback Mike Alstott and elusive tailback Warrick Dunn had been the engine in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense for most of four seasons, sometimes trading places as the most prominent runner but always combining to pose a serious running threat.
Now, Alstott will be on the shelf for the rest of the regular season, the first extended absence for either player in their NFL careers. However, as the Buffalo Bills discovered on Sunday, lightning without thunder is, perhaps, even more dangerous. It strikes without warning.
Otherwise, how do you explain Dunn, in his first game as the sole piston in the running attack, recording his first 100-yard rushing game since 1998 against the league's third-ranked rushing defense. Buffalo, for goodness' sake, hadn't allowed any single running back to post a 100-yard game against them this season. Not 240-pound Eddie George. Not 220-pound Edgerrin James or 225-pound Lamar Smith. Not Curtis Martin (twice), Robert Smith or James Allen.
But Dunn, all of 68 inches and 180 pounds, did, and it was the difference in the Bucs' hard-fought 31-17 win in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday. Among the questions facing a 6-5 Buccaneers team heading into Sunday's game, with a difficult five-game stretch drive remaining, was, 'Could the team survive on the ground without Alstott?'
Quiet but confident, Dunn answered affirmatively during the week leading up to the game, then went out and proved it against the Bills, who had surrendered under 80 rushing yards per game before their 31-17 loss in Tampa. The Bucs' fourth-year runner reached 20 carries for the first time this season and averaged 5.3 yards per tote.
Head Coach Tony Dungy, who also was confident Dunn could handle the job, couldn't have been happier with the result. "Warrick (Dunn) went out and did a great job for us," said Dungy, a master of understatement.
There were, of course, a handful of Dunn runs that hit the line of scrimmage and went nowhere. There were no available holes on those fruitless carries, but a bigger back like Alstott might have moved the pile forward a yard or two. Many big backs, however, wouldn't have turned a small seam into a 39-yard breakaway touchdown, as Dunn did late in the fourth quarter to ice the team's victory.
Alstott, who is surprisingly nimble for a man of his size, might have, of course, but Dunn is considered the more consistent long-range threat. Alstott, on the other hand, is most famously known for his highlight-reel runs near the goal line. Without him to take up the ball in the red zone, Dunn got the call to put the ball in the end zone and did so with an Alstott-type run early in the fourth quarter.
With the Bucs' clinging to a very unstable 10-7 lead, Dunn took a handoff on third-and-one and cut behind right guard towards a small seam. After jumping over a Bill who was prone on the turf, Dunn landed at the three, put his head down and drove straight into two more Bills tacklers to power into the end zone.
That set Dunn up for the first two-rushing touchdown game of his career, which he got with the aforementioned 39-yarder in the final five minutes. "I cut it back and there was nothing but daylight," said Dunn of the clinching TD. "The line did a good job and all I had to do was run."
To nobody's surprise, that was the tenor of Dunn's comments after the game, a liberal sharing of the credit.
"This means more to the offensive line," he said. "They got us the first half and we came out and made adjustments in the second half. This game was the biggest game and next week will be another big one. We threw the ball well in the second half and the running game picked up where the passing game left off."
However humble or accurate Dunn's postgame thoughts are, the fact remains that he has proven his worth as an every-down runner almost every chance he has had. Including Sunday's effort, Dunn has now been given 20 or more carries in a game seven times in his career and has averaged 92.6 yards per game and 4.1 yards per tote in those seven games.
Moreover, the Bucs are 6-1 when that occurs. Those are numbers any running back can be happy with.