The Tampa Bay Buccaneers rushed for 119 yards in their season-opening win over Cleveland last weekend, the 10th best ground total in the league in Week One. The Carolina Panthers produced 89 yards on the ground in their loss to the New York Giants, 20th best in the NFL in Week One.
The question is whether the Buccaneers can take that strong start and build on it, producing the consistently powerful running game that Head Coach Raheem Morris has wanted to build around since taking over in 2009. Few question that the Panthers, with their tailback tandem of DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart running behind a very physical offensive line, will have better days than their opener.
Conversation often turns to the ground game when one is preparing to play the Panthers, as it did here on Buccaneers.com on Wednesday. Carolina isn't the only team in the NFL that has built a well-deserved reputation for running the ball well – the Jets led the league last year and Tennessee, Baltimore and Minnesota also seem perennially strong in that area – but the Panthers are the Bucs' division foe and twice-a-year opponent. It's natural to covet the perfectly-landscaped lawn right next door.
"Everybody would like to have a running game like that, and everybody on any given day can," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris. "We are trying to work to that point. We're trying to get to that point where we can have a run game that can be that dominant. I don't know if we will be but it certainly would be nice to have a run game that would have some similarities to what they do. Because what they do is a great job of mixing up formations, creating mismatches with running backs on defensive backs and making people tackle consistently. That's something you've got to work on continuously throughout the process."
That may become easier for the Buccaneers if Cadillac Williams continues his re-emergence as the team's clear feature back. Dating back to last season, Williams has carried the ball 20 or more times in each of the Buccaneers' last three games, something he hadn't done once since the early part of 2007. Williams didn't find many big seams in the early going against Cleveland but he kept running hard through the game's full 60 minutes and was rewarded near the end. His 75 yards on 22 carries may not look spectacular on the stat sheet but they powered a running game that made the difference on offense in the second half.
Sticking with the running attack, even after it had produced just 57 yards in the first half, 33 on a scramble by quarterback Josh Freeman, was key to reaping those end-game rewards.
"No question, a lot of it is mentality," said Morris. "A lot of it's demeanor. A lot of it is what you want to do and how you decide to do it. You just make your mind up that somebody's not going to stop you. It's just going out and doing it every day."
The Bucs gave six carries to their ultra-valuable tailback/fullback hybrid Earnest Graham, but almost exclusively in short-yardage situations. Third-down back Kareem Huggins was on the field for a decent handful of snaps but didn't have the football come his way. Morris said in the days that followed the opener that he would look to make sure Huggins gets involved in the rushing attack in upcoming games, but that actually may not be possible in Week Two at Carolina.
Huggins was on the field on Wednesday when the practice week began but later left after suffering a setback to his mild groin strain. He did not practice on Thursday when the Buccaneers held their second workout of the week at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg. If Huggins is unable to play on Sunday in Charlotte, that could open the door for the Buccaneer debut of one of the two backs claimed off waivers after the NFL's cutdown to 53 players on September 4, Kregg Lumpkin and LeGarrette Blount.
"[Huggins] tweaked himself a little bit; it's a groin issue," said Morris. "He went out and practiced yesterday and today he did not go for us. I don't know where he's going to be tomorrow.
"But it's fortunate – we have those two young backs to come in and compete and potentially fill that role for us this week. They've been competing well and doing a great job. I'm talking about Lumpkin and Blount and what those two men have been able to do, practice squad reps, filling in for Cadillac when he's not in there on the first unit or second unit. It's been great. I'll have to make that choice once we get to game day if Kareem's not able to go."
Morris said Lumpkin holds an inherent advantage in that some of what the Buccaneers do on offense is similar to what he had learned in over a year playing in the Green Bay Packers' system. However, Morris also praised the amount of time Blount has spent since his arrival in Tampa working with Running Backs Coach Steve Logan in an effort to absorb the playbook. As of Thursday, Morris wouldn't reveal which back would be in the lead if one was needed on Sunday to step in for Huggins.
"They're practicing so hard and doing such a good job of competing and trying to be the guy to get picked for that helmet [on Sunday]," said Morris. "I like to have that suspense for myself when I go into that game on Sunday and really have to agonize in my head of who I want to put up, who earned it the most and who did the best job in practice that week."
Neither Lumpkin nor Blount is the same sort of back as Huggins, a smaller, quicker type with breakaway speed. The former two backs – who run 228 and 247 pounds, respectively – are strong between the tackles and, in Lumpkin's case especially, versatile enough to help in several ways.
"When we picked him up, we thought he had that hybrid ability," said Morris of Lumpkin. "He kind of reminds you of an Earnest Graham type of body. He's not as big as Earnest Graham but he can do some of those types of things and he's been doing it for us as well. When he goes to practice you can get him in there at fullback, you'll see him in there at tailback. He's a sharp young man in his second year of playing. He loves football."
Of course, no matter which young back gets the call in the case of a Huggins absence, the bulk of the rushing load is likely to be shouldered by Williams again. It's around him, the 2005 NFL Rookie of the Year and the Bucs' 2009 Ed Block Courage Award winner for his stirring comeback, that the Buccaneers will try to build that consistent running game they covet. On Sunday, they'll see the perfect model on the other side of the field.
Making a Good Start Even Better
On Monday, Morris put his team's season-opening victory in perspective, saying it was a big win for his young team but not one that was going to spawn any parades through Tampa. Morris' main point: The win is nice but it will eventually mean little if it isn't followed by a good deal more of the same.
That opening-day win was, obviously, a better way to start a playoff run than a loss. In 2009, 10 of the 12 eventual playoff teams won their opening games. Eight of the 12 playoff teams won on opening day in 2008, after that number held at nine in both 2007 and 2006. In 2005, eight of the 12 playoff teams were opening-day victors. Moreover, the Buccaneers have made the playoffs in four of the last five seasons in which they started off with a win (2005, 2001, 2000 and 1997 but not 2003).
What the Buccaneers would really like, however, would be to forge a 2-0 start. It would be just the seventh 2-0 opening in franchise history, and the last three have all been the starts of playoff seasons (2005, 2000 and 1997). The Buccaneers did not make the playoffs after their 2-0 starts in 1992 or 1980, but did in 1979.
However, even if the Bucs leave Charlotte with an unblemished 2010 record, they shouldn't feel overconfident. Interestingly, a 2-0 start hasn't been a very strong guarantee of a postseason berth in recent years. From 2005-09, 46 NFL teams began the season at 2-0, and 28 of them eventually made the playoffs. Here are the year-by-year totals, marking the number of playoff teams out of the total field of 2-0 starters:
- 2009: 5 of 9
- 2008: 5 of 10
- 2007: 6 of 10
- 2006: 6 of 10
- 2005: 6 of 7
Only in 2005 was a 2-0 start a near-guarantee of an extended season, and that came out of the smallest field of such teams. The Buccaneers clearly want to be among this year's group of undefeated teams after two weeks, but they'll keep Morris' words in mind in the weeks that follow.
The Buccaneers' injury report, which has been pleasantly light throughout the preseason and the start of the regular season, grew a little bit on Thursday.
In addition to Huggins' setback, the Buccaneers also added two new names to the report: linebacker Niko Koutouvides (ankle) and fullback Chris Pressley (knee). Both players were limited in practice on Thursday. In addition, tight end Kellen Winslow (knee) did not participate in practice for the second consecutive day.
Those changes were balanced by a couple bits of more positive news. Starting right guard Davin Joseph (quad) was removed from the report completely after practicing fully on both Wednesday and Thursday. Starting nose tackle Roy Miller (illness) went from a day off on Wednesday to full participation on Thursday. And quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb) was once again unlimited in the Bucs' second workout of the week.
The Panthers' injury report also had one new addition on Thursday: cornerback Chris Gamble. The team's starting left cornerback, Gamble participated in a limited fashion on Thursday due to an ankle ailment.
Four of the other eight players on Carolina's list saw their practice-participation status change on Thursday. Wide receiver Charly Martin (hamstring) had participated in a limited fashion Wednesday but was held out altogether on Thursday. He was one of three Panthers who did not practice on Thursday, joining defensive tackle Louis Leonard (elbow) and offensive tackle Jeff Otah (knee).
On the other hand, two Panthers who were held out of practice on Wednesday returned in a limited fashion for the week's second workout: defensive end Tyler Brayton (ankle) and wide receiver Brandon LaFell (hamstring).
And perhaps most importantly, starting quarterback Matt Moore, who began the week suffering from the lingering effects from a concussion suffered in the season opener in New York, was cleared to practice fully on Thursday.
Wide receiver Maurice Stovall has not been on the Bucs' injury report this week and has practiced without issues. However, he was one of eight players deactivated by the Bucs against Cleveland after missing the last three preseason games due to an ankle injury.
"He's gotten a lot better this week," said Morris of Stovall. "Getting the extra week of rest from last week has gotten him a lot better. He looked good last week but the extra week might have helped him a little more to keep him stronger down the stretch."
Tampa Bay kept only four receivers active in that contest – Mike Williams, Sammie Stroughter, Micheal Spurlock and Arrelious Benn – but wants to find ways to get all of its deep receiving corps into the mix. That includes Stovall, who is an outstanding special teams player as well, and rookie Preston Parker, a training camp standout.
"You can have any given Sunday where I can do different things," said Morris. "You can go with four, you can go with five. We've been talking about it all offseason how the wide receiver position has really been a strength for us. Those guys really compete every week for helmets [on game day]. I looked at Preston Parker today and [thought], 'Wow, shoot, I wonder how he would do if he was up.' Mo's going to come back strong. He's been a starter in our system before. He knows a multitude of different positions – the X, the Z, the Zebra – and he brings a lot to game day with his special teams abilities and all the things he does for his teammates."