The Bucs' offense would welcome RB Carnell Williams back with open arms
Every NFL team deals with a loss the same way, or at least attempts to: Get over it and go back to work on Monday morning.
It helps when you can begin the morning with some good news.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers Head Coach began his Monday press briefing by announcing that the team had upgraded running back Carnell Williams' status for Sunday's game against Miami to probable. Williams, the rookie sensation who powered the Bucs to a 3-0 start with an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three games, missed Sunday's road loss to the New York Jets, which dropped the team to 4-1.
Williams has actually missed most of the Bucs' last two games, carrying just 11 times for 13 yards in a win over the Detroit Lions on Oct. 2 before being named inactive in New York. As he has recovered from a sprained foot and a tweaked hamstring, the Bucs' running game has dipped from 166.0 yards per game through the first three weeks to 76.5 per game over the last two.
Gruden hopes Williams will be available for more practice this week than he has the last two, and he'll have a better feel for the rookie's chances to suit up this weekend after seeing him on the field on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday.
"I can't say it's 'safe to say' he will play against Miami," said Gruden. "We're hoping we have the guy back. We need him, there is no question about that. He does have a legitimate injury that hasn't come around as quickly as we had hoped. But, he is working at it. He is very frustrated and if there's a chance, he'll make it happen."
The foot injury has been the more troublesome of the two, and he actually incurred it in Week Two against Buffalo, while carrying the ball 24 times. He wasn't slowed by the injury at Green Bay in Week Three, carrying 37 times for 158 yards, but he struggled in Week Four even before adding the hamstring injury. On Sunday in New York, Williams was simply unable to play; Gruden stated repeatedly that the team would not rest the young back simply for the purpose of resting him.
Still, the week off has seemed to do Williams some good.
"I think it has helped him," said Gruden. "The good thing is that his body is going to be very fresh, his shoulders, his thighs, the areas that help him run the ball and be very good at it. So, that's a good sign. We need this guy in our lineup and we would like to get him completely healthy, although he may not reach complete health until the season is over. That's the case, I think, for a lot of guys that play this game."
Williams return for the Miami game would allow him to oppose his former college teammate, Dolphins rookie back Ronnie Brown. Williams and Brown shared the backfield duties at Auburn for four years and led the Tigers to an undefeated record last year. In April, the Dolphins selected Brown with the second overall pick in the draft and the Bucs took Williams three picks later.
Gruden said there were no significant new injuries from the Jets game to report. Safety Jermaine Phillips, who was also inactive on Sunday due to a thumb injury, remains questionable for the Miami game.
Barber Hit Both Inadvertent and Uncharacteristic
Ronde Barber expects to be fined for his inadvertent strike of NFL official Butch Hannah during Sunday's game, but the incident shouldn't damage his very solid reputation in the league.
Following a Ty Law interception and return to the Buccaneers' eight-yard line in the second quarter, running back Curtis Martin ran up the middle of the field for five yards. Several players scuffled at the end of the play and Barber became locked up with center Kevin Mawae. In an attempt to get Mawae's right arm off of him, Barber chopped hard at the arm with his own right hand. Hannah was attempting to separate the two players, and Barber's swing caught the official below the right eye, knocking him to the ground.
Barber was penalized for unnecessary roughness, but was not ejected from the game.
On Monday, Gruden said he would speak with Barber about the incident but he defended his veteran player's character.
"I do believe that, at the end of the day – I know that for sure – this is a guy who's played with great etiquette and has a great respect for the game," said Gruden.
"We'll visit about that, and once we get to the bottom of it we'll move on. But I do know he has a great respect for the game and certainly for the officials who officiate the game. I think that play doesn't symbolize what kind of football player, what kind of man we have here."
Three of the Buccaneers' five games so far have been decided by four points or less, and the season-opening 24-13 win at Minnesota was much closer than the final score indicates.
Given the team's stingy defense and inconsistent offense to this point, it stands to reason that there are more close games in the Bucs' near future. And that likelihood makes the little battles for field position within each game even more important.
Example: Tampa Bay mounted three drives of at least 12 plays and three marches of at least 50 yards against the Jets but never got the ball in the end zone. Meanwhile, New York had only one drive of more than 50 yards but scored two touchdowns and won by two points.
One area in which the team knows it needs to improve in order to win the field-position battle is kickoff returns.
Through five games, the Bucs are last in the league in kickoff return average, picking up just 16.7 yards per runback. Tampa Bay is also second-to-last in the NFL in average kickoff drive start, with a mean starting point of the 22.4-yard line. Of the 18 Buccaneer drives that have started after a kickoff, six have begun inside the team's own 20-yard line. Against the Jets, the Bucs averaged 10.5 yards on two kickoff returns, mostly due to CB Torrie Cox's muff of the game's opening kick.
Thus, Gruden answered quickly when asked on Monday if the Bucs were considering some changes to the kickoff return unit.
"Yes, we are," he said. "Here's a guy [Cox] who helped us lead the NFL or the NFC last year in kick returns. But he struggled making a reception and it hasn't been once, it's been more than once. To open up a football game like that, is certainly a downer. We're looking for people that can possibly come in and do that.
Gruden said he would open the kickoff return job to competition this week, which may mean opportunities for running backs Earnest Graham and Michael Pittman or receivers Edell Shepherd and J.R. Russell. Second-year receiver Mark Jones, who already owns the punt return job, may get the first look.