RB Warrick Dunn has been picking up big chunks of yardage for the Bucs in recent weeks
When word came that Pro Bowl safety John Lynch would probably miss this Sunday's game against Buffalo, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers sighed, took a deep breath and announced the plan to deal with his absence. Damien Robinson will slide to strong safety and Dexter Jackson will come on at free safety.
When word came that the team would be without Pro Bowl fullback Mike Alstott for at least six weeks, the Bucs...well, they made no specific plans, at least in public.
The question is, who are you trying to replace. A lead blocker for RB Warrick Dunn? The Bucs' leading rusher in 1999? The man who had rushed for 50 yards just once in the last seven weeks? The bulldozer who was sometimes indescribably artistic at the goal line? A feature back? A fourth-quarter clock-killer?
Alstott's role seemed less and less defined in recent weeks, but he was no less important to the Bucs' offense, and how to replace him is not a question to be answered in 20 words or less. Still, after time to reflect, the guess here is that the majority of the slack will be picked up by one man: Dunn.
This is no slight to the rest of the Bucs' running back stable. Aaron Stecker and Rabih Abdullah have the complete confidence of the team's coaching staff, but Stecker has 31 career NFL rushing yards and Abdullah 30. Charles Kirby, the man who will replace Alstott's lead blocking, has two NFL games on his resume and no marks in any stat column.
Dunn, on the other hand, is not only proven, he's on a bit of a roll. While his statistics for the last month may not be overwhelming, the Bucs' diminutive lightning bug has been at the top of his game, dashing and darting for small gains where none seemed possible and mixing in the occasional long run.
Dunn, for one, thinks the Bucs can overcome the loss of his erstwhile backfield mate.
"It's big, but I think, as a team, we're going to handle it well because we face adversity well," said Dunn. "I think guys on this team know that we have to step up and play hard."
The Bucs' fourth-year Buc has been running particularly hard for over a month now. Dunn has had at least 55 running yards in each of the past four games and has averaged at least 3.9 yards per tote for five consecutive weeks.
Dunn hasn't been this hot for quite some time. In fact, the only other time in his career that Dunn has put up at least 50 rushing yards in four consecutive games was in late 1998, when he had a similar run in November and late December.
Dunn, in fact, has twisted and dashed for an average of 74 yards per game over the last four contests, recording just under five yards per tote. Breakout runs of 15 or more yards have helped his average, but he has also repeatedly taken plays that seemed doomed to failure and turned them into short gains, with or without blocking. Still, the teamwork-minded Dunn refuses to see matters in a personal light.
"We haven't played well down the stretch, we haven't played well in the fourth quarter, and too many guys are making mistakes," said Dunn. "It's frustrating, but I think that the position that we're in right now is positive, because all we can do is improve. We have a short season left and guys have to step up, play hard and play better, be consistent."
Dunn has never posted five straight games with at least 50 rushing yards, and to do so now he'll have to crack a Buffalo defense that has allowed less than 80 ground yards per game. The Bills' run defense ranks third in the league and throws an unfamiliar 3-4 look at the Buccaneers.
Still, the Bucs' averaged 120 rushing yards per game in two contests against teams running a similar defense, New England and the New York Jets, in September. Throw in the fact that the Bucs now feel as if their backs are up against the proverbial wall and one would expect Dunn to get a chance to improve on those numbers.
"I don't think it's desperation, but guys know what they have to do to win football games," said Dunn, mindful of the Bucs' tenuous 6-5 record in a tight NFC playoff race. "The guys are going to go out and play hard. Most likely, we're going to play well, we're going to play good at home. We have to defend our home turf."