The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are ready to unveil a new-look offensive backfield on Sunday in Cincinnati. The lead dog remains the same, but he hopefully will be getting some help pulling the sled.
Cadillac Williams has averaged just over 18 carries a game through the Bucs' first three outings, and the team has been pleased with how hard he is run, even in a rigorous 27-carry outing at Carolina in Week Two. Williams has topped 20 carries in two of the first three games of the season, and each ended in a Buccaneer victory.
However, while Williams remains the team's starting tailback, there is additional rushing talent the Bucs wish to utilize in order to make the entire package more productive. Thanks to Kareem Huggins' return to health and the quick playbook study of rookie LeGarrette Blount, the team is now in position to do just that.
"We go out every day and try to find ways to limit Cadillac's carries because that's what this league's become," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, noting that most NFL teams employ quite a bit of backfield timesharing. "It's become a two-back league, finding ways to make a lot of people productive, and that's what we want to do. We have a lot of faith and trust in Cadillac. He carries our banner proudly and we think the world of him."
From what they've seen, the Bucs also think Blount can be productive. When he was claimed off waivers from the Tennessee Titans just before the regular season opener, it might have seemed likely that the rookie from Oregon would spend a good part of the season on the inactive list, absorbing the Bucs' system. Instead, he learned quickly and was able to get into the team's Week Three game against Pittsburgh, rushing six times for 27 yards and a touchdown. Now, with two weeks framed around the bye to become more comfortable with the protection schemes, he could be ready to take on a larger role.
"It's been a great week of practice for him," said Morris. "He was able to get out there and go through the protections, go good-on-good a little bit and let him learn and figure it out. We were able to throw him right into the fire among us without having to be in a game. Same for some of the young, ascending players like Arrelious Benn – they were able to get acclimated a little bit more to the offense. We're really looking forward to getting Huggy back from injury too and seeing what we can do."
The 247-pound Blount provides a power runner between the tackles and the speedy Huggins could help the Bucs exploit the edges more than they have through the first three weeks. Those two, along with the versatile and dependable Williams, give the Bucs a nice combination of looks in the running game. They also allow the team to keep all three fresh through the long grind of an NFL campaign.
"You want Cadillac to be as healthy as he can be, to make it through another 16-game season and hopefully get us a little bit further," said Morris. "Also, you've got these guys in here and you want to present challenges to people with fresh backs. We've seen the formula in Carolina work extremely well and now we're trying to do it a little bit ourselves."
Like the Bucs, the Bengals have pounded away with a proven back without quite breaking out in the running game yet. Cedric Benson, who amassed more than 1,200 rushing yards last year, is averaging just 3.6 yards per carry but is still getting the ball close to 20 times a game. The Buccaneers expect Cincinnati to rely on Benson again, even with the dynamic presence of Terrell Owens and Chad Ochocinco on the outside, and know that stopping the rugged back is not an easy task.
"He helped catapult their season last year," said Morris of Benson. "They went to the playoffs and they're going to lean back on him a little bit to get him going in the right direction. We've got to go out there and play great against the run because he's a very good football player."
Buccaneer coaches also understand that slowing Benson early makes Owens and Ochocinco incrementally easier to deal with. If Benson breaks free and the Bucs have to commit more defenders to stopping the run, quarterback Carson Palmer could end up with more wide-open looks with his big and experienced wideouts.
"It's a great dynamic duo at wide receiver," said Morris. "They've got a lot of depth there, a lot of years, a lot of quality people. They've played a long time and done a lot of great things. You've got T.O. over there – he's the second all-time leading receiver in a lot of categories. We look forward to the challenge, he and Ochocinco."
The Buccaneers will face that challenge with the lineup they want, as the bye week helped return the roster to essentially full strength. All 53 players on the roster practiced during the week and the team's eight inactives were chosen on the basis of strategy rather than injury.
As such, the Bucs deactivated these eight players: CB Myron Lewis, RB Kregg Lumpkin, FB Chris Pressley, C/G Ted Larsen, WR Maurice Stovall, WR Preston Parker, DT Ryan Sims and designated third QB Rudy Carpenter.
Though there are no changes to the starting lineup, the Buccaneers did keep several players active who have the opportunity to see their first action of the season. That includes second-year defensive end Michael Bennett and rookie TE/FB Erik Lorig. Lorig, who was drafted as a defensive end this past April, could appear in his first NFL game after making the conversion to offense over the past several weeks.
Cincinnati named these eight players inactive: WR Jordan Shipley, RB Cedric Peerman, S Roy Williams, C Reggie Stephens, DE Jonathan Fanene, T Anthony Collins and DE Carlos Dunlap. Shipley, Williams and Fanene were out due to injury.
The Bengals also announced two changes to their starting defense. At right defensive end, second-year man Michael Johnson will get the call in place of Antwan Odom. And with Williams out, Chinedum Ndukwe will take over at strong safety.
The Buccaneers and Bengals kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Tampa Bay, which has a current five-game winning streak on the line against Cincinnati, is looking to improve to 3-1 with another victory. Morris thinks they can accomplish that goal by sticking to their core philosophy. "It just goes back to what we've been saying all year – fast, hard, smart and consistent," he said. "Let's go play that way and we'll have a chance anywhere we go against anyone we play."
Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.