G Randall McDaniel was the moving force in many of Warrick Dunn's carries to the left side on Sunday
He's like a weed among the sequoias, is Warrick Dunn. The 5-8, 180-pound running back is looking for cracks in which to flourish amid a forest of 300-pound men and, suddenly, he's finding them.
A productive but unspectacular performer through the first 12 weeks of the season, Dunn is suddenly one of the key figures in the confusing NFC playoff race, with 316 rushing yards and four touchdowns in the last two weeks. You must now consider him an NFC mover-and-shaker – and how apt that term is when you see his running style – along the likes of Donovan McNabb, Kurt Warner, La'Roi Glover and Michael Strahan.
Dunn has spread himself all over the Raymond James Stadium field, weed-like, over the past two weeks because he has found a rhythm with six men: right tackle Jerry Wunsch, right guard Frank Middleton, center Jeff Christy, left guard Randall McDaniel and Pete Pierson and George Hegamin, who share duty at left tackle. Dunn's electric moves, most notably the spin he uses frequently to slip sure tackles, are certainly what has made him so prolific, but he still needs holes into which to run.
He's getting them.
Against Dallas on Sunday, Dunn rushed for 210 yards, becoming just the second player in Tampa Bay's 25-year team history to surpassed the 200-yard mark. James Wilder still holds the team record at 219 yards, but Dunn topped his own previous career high by 80 yards. His best before Sunday was a 130-yard outing in just his second game as a pro, at Detroit on September 7, 1997.
"This means more to the offensive line," said Dunn immediately after the game. "Those guys are in the trenches and they are the ones criticized when the running game does not go well. This is for all of them."
Dunn isn't necessarily playing the modesty card. He has a point. After Dunn picked up 106 yards on 20 carries last Sunday against Buffalo, it was suggested several times over the following week that the offensive line was finding a rhythm with their lone rusher. FB Mike Alstott, the third leading rusher in team history and an invaluable asset to the Bucs' offense, had gone down the week before in Chicago with a knee injury, leaving Dunn to shoulder the load alone.
If that seemed like a burden at the time, it was also an opportunity. Dunn had carried the ball 20 times in a game only five times before Alstott's injury, just twice since his rookie year. Dunn and Alstott had often worked extremely well as a dual threat, but the combination was producing up-and-down results in 2000. Now, Dunn is the man, and he has rushed at least 20 times in each of the subsequent games. The results are obvious.
"When you can get your back started that early in the game, you feel like you are going to have a big day," said Hegamin. "He had some pretty cuts out there and he generates a lot of different moves. He prepares well and runs hard. If we feature him the rest of the season, he can get it done for us."
To say Dunn got started early would be an understatement. On his first carry of the game, Dunn swept around left end and broke free for a 70-yard touchdown. It was the fourth-longest run in team history, the longest scoring run of his career and, most importantly, his first carry of over 40 yards since 1998. Dunn is a home run hitter, as the Bucs' coaching staff has always emphasized, and he had banged a triple off the wall the previous week with a 39-yarder against Buffalo.
"I haven't done that since college," said Dunn of his 70-yard TD. "Dave Moore had the toughest block, he got his man. After that it was a matter of breathing and running."
Against the Cowboys, admittedly the worst rushing defense in the league, Dunn added a 23-yard carry and a 34-yard scamper to that 70-yard breakaway, nearly doubling his season total (4) of carries of more than 20 yards.
"He is unique at his size," said Dungy after the game. "He is fast, quick and a great rusher. He runs strong for his size. It takes a lot to get a shot on him and we are lucky to have him."
But, most importantly, he is in a comfort zone with his blockers. The Bucs picked up 89 rushing yards in the fourth quarter alone and it seemed like a sweep left was called on two out of every three plays. Sometimes Dunn followed the lead blockers, sometimes he cut back. Everything worked, and that may have been because repetition was allowing Dunn to get a better feel for what he would see.
The offensive line is certainly happy to be a part of the Bucs' sudden upswing in the running game. The Bucs picked up a team-record 250 ground yards against Dallas and are now averaging 130.3 yards per game. That's closing in on the team's 1998 mark of 134.3 yards per contest, which was good enough to rank fourth in the NFL, Tampa Bay's highest rushing rank ever.
"We just wanted to show Dallas we had the better offensive line," said G Frank Middleton, who rarely considers diplomacy in his locker room comments. "I look at Warrick and just say, run, baby, run. It is fun seeing a little guy take off running. Everything is falling our way if we stick together. We just want to get better."
That may be difficult to achieve after a 250-yard afternoon, but who's to say what this rushing unit is capable of? One thing is for sure: they're really clicking now.