Second-year S Will Allen started at free safety against the Lions and could be at strong safety against the Jets
Cadillac Williams is officially a question mark for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' game against the New York Jets on Sunday. And he's not the only one.
Both Williams and starting strong safety Jermaine Phillips have been installed as questionable on the Buccaneers' first injury report of the week, and neither practiced on Wednesday. Head Coach Jon Gruden said the rookie back would have to make "significant improvement" to be able to play, and suggested that second-year man Will Allen may be moving to strong safety this Sunday to take over for Phillips.
Williams has been hampered by a left foot ailment since the second week of the season, and he added a mild hamstring strain on Sunday against the Lions. Phillips has a right thumb injury, sustained Sunday against Detroit.
If Williams, the NFL's third-leading rusher with 447 yards, is held out of the Jets game, it will be due to the latest opinion of the team's medical staff and not any sort of plan to rest the rookie to keep him fresh for the long haul. Gruden knows that every game on the schedule is critical and will certainly use whatever weapons are available to him at the time.
"I'm just getting my evaluation daily from the trainer," he said. "That's all I can go on, concrete information. We're going to see if he's well enough to play. They're paying us to coach and paying us to play, and if our guys are well enough to play they'll play. If they're not, they won't."
Did Williams concede on Wednesday that a weekend off could be good for his long-term effectiveness this season? Yes, but in the same breath he also showed a willingness to play through some discomfort.
"In a way, yes, [rest would be good], but it is football," said Williams. "One thing that I have to understand is that it is a long season, not like college. In college, you're halfway through the season. Right now, we're not even halfway. We're still evaluating things with the trainers."
The more significant problem seems to be the foot injury. Williams hasn't really tested out the hamstring that gave him a twinge on Sunday, but doesn't seem overly concerned about it.
"I haven't done any running on it, so I don't know," he said. "I don't have any swelling. I don't feel that's a problem at all."
Williams' season got off to an unprecedented start. He had 88 carries and an NFL-record 434 rushing yards through his first three games and he is one of the main reasons his Buccaneers are 4-0 after an 0-4 start last year. Wild predictions about rushing titles and league records began to surface, and Williams certainly would have loved to continue producing at the same level every weekend.
However, he carried only 11 times or 13 yards on Sunday in Detroit before leaving with the tweaked hamstring. That and his ongoing left foot soreness, stemming from an injury suffered in Week Two against Buffalo, have slowed down his pace but shouldn't come close to derailing his magnificent rookie season.
"It's tough, but that's how it is," said Williams of the sudden fall-off from 100-yard games to near inactivity. "You've got to take the good and bad. God knows in my football career, there have definitely been some tough times. I'm very fortunate that it's not something that's going to sideline me for the rest of the year. It's just a bump in the road. I'm definitely going to get over it."
The Bucs should be able to survive, too, if Williams is forced to miss the Jets game. They were quite pleased with their running back depth during training camp and now could be in position to test it. Actually, they passed their first test on Sunday against the Lions when former starter Michael Pittman came on to contribute 126 total yards and a touchdown in the Bucs' 17-13 win. Second-year back Earnest Graham, who had a strong preseason, also got a handful of carries against Detroit and is a trusted option.
"The more talent you have at that position, the better off you are," said Pittman. "You can count on Cadillac to get the job done, you can count on me to get the job done, you can count on Earnest Graham to get the job done."
Gruden said both reserve tailbacks started off the week of practice well.
"[Pittman] and Earnest Graham looked very good," said the coach. "[Mike] Alstott, if need be, will see more of an active role if the case arises, and Jameel Cook as well.
"Michael has been our guy that we've gone to in a lot of key situations here, so he's going to be ready to play. He proved that once again last Sunday, I believe. If Carnell's not ready to go it will be a lot of Pittman, some Earnest Graham and some others."
Graham and Pittman got only eight carries between them (all Pittman) during the first three games of the season, as the Bucs rode Williams' hot hand. Though Graham, an undrafted free agent who first made the roster midway through last year, is not yet used to significant NFL playing time, Pittman had 219 carries and 962 yards last year and has almost 6,000 combined rushing and receiving yards in his career. He didn't play a prominent role in the offense during the first three games, but he voluntarily picked up reps on special teams and remained the consummate team player.
"For some maybe that's hard," said Gruden. "But if you're a pro football player and you meet Carnell Williams you might just say, 'You know what, that guy does deserve to play.' Michael is a team guy, I've said that all along. He's a special guy. He's also helping us on special teams and he's an important part of this team."
Perhaps more important this weekend, if Williams is shelved. Pittman is running with the first team in practice and preparing for any possibility. He is not assuming any specific role on Sunday based on what Williams had been doing.
"It's totally up to coach, whatever coach wants to call," said Pittman. "Of course I would love to have 25-some-odd carries, but at the same time, it's whatever's working. If we're passing the ball a lot that's what I think we'll stay with. If we're running the ball well, we'll probably stay with that."
Phillips' thumb injury could lead to a more complicated shuffling of the lineup than Williams' absence.
Last week, Allen started at free safety due to a hamstring injury that kept starter Dexter Jackson out of the game. Jackson was back in practice on Wednesday and is listed as probable on the injury report, and Gruden said he expects the veteran safety to play on Sunday. That would allow Allen to slide over to strong safety and take Phillips' spot, with rookie Donte Nicholson and first-year man Kalvin Pearson in reserve.
The Bucs did have some encouraging news on the injury front on Wednesday. Starting left tackle Anthony Davis, who missed the second half of the Detroit game with a shoulder stinger, was able to participate fully in the two-hour practice. Gruden said he expected Davis to start against the Jets.