RB Earnest Graham is averaging 5.9 yards per carry, best among the top 15 backs in the NFC
The Denver Broncos, who boast the NFL's top-ranked offense, are averaging a robust 121.3 rushing yards per game. At this point, the fact that the Broncos leading rusher is undrafted free agent Selvin Young, and their second-leading rusher is undrafted free agent Andre Hall, no longer counts as surprising.
Denver so routinely finds success in its running game with out-of-nowhere backs – even franchise-best Terrell Davis was a sixth-rounder – that it would be more out of the ordinary if Young failed to take advantage of this opportunity.
Jon Gruden, whose Tampa Bay Buccaneers are fresh off holding another free agent success – Green Bay's Ryan Grant – to 20 yards on 15 carries, certainly isn't surprised by what Young and Hall have done. Gruden credits the Broncos' ability to find talent that perfectly matches their scheme, and the overall offensive talent surrounding the backfield, for the latest success stories in Denver.
But Gruden had one other reaction to the topic of the Broncos' rushing success. If Young and Hall – and Mike Anderson and Reuben Droughns and Olandis Gary before them – are "diamonds in the rough," then the Buccaneers have a gem of their own.
Gruden knocked on the podium in front of him when he brought up the name of Earnest Graham, perhaps signifying how solid the former undrafted free agent has been for the Buccaneers since moving into the starting lineup last October. Through four weeks, Graham ranks sixth in the NFC with 347 rushing yards, and his 5.9 yards per carry is the best among all backs in the top 15 on that list.
The Buccaneers' rushing attack, which has also incorporated a significant dose of veteran Warrick Dunn, ranks seventh in the NFL with 133.8 yards per game. Gruden appreciates not only Graham's work as the lead horse in that attack, but also Graham's leadership, period.
"They just don't get any better," said Gruden of Graham's character. "The Warrick Dunns, Derrick Brookses, [Ronde] Barbers, some of the guys we've been fortunate enough to have here and coach, the [John] Lynches, all those guys, high-character guys – this guy's right there with them. He's a team guy. He plays fullback, tailback, he's begging to cover a kick. He's as happy for Warrick Dunn and his success as he is for his own. And boy is he talented. He's a hard guy to bring down. He was 4-4 in short-yardage last week against the Green Bay Packers. That says enough right there, what kind of hard-nosed runner he is. And he's showing big-time playmaking ability as well."
Graham is three-for-four so far this year when called on to convert a third-and-one situation with a run. In the Bucs' win over Green Bay on Sunday, he converted a third-and-one in the first quarter, another third-and-one in the second quarter, a fourth-and-one later in the second quarter and then one more third-and-one in the final period. He also punched in a touchdown from the one-yard line on first-and-goal near the end of the game.
Graham's touchdown came one play after he ripped off a 47-yarder down to the one, essentially sealing the Bucs' victory. The Packers had held Graham to eight rushing yards in the first half (though the Bucs had a 13-7 lead) but he finished the game with 111. Given Graham's rock-solid physique, it's not surprising that he has been coming on strong in the second half when defenses start to tire.
"We haven't done particularly well running the ball in the first half," said Gruden. "That's not because he's not running the ball or not because we're not trying. We used up seven or eight early downs to try to get the run established. We have to do a better job. We'd like to see Earnest start hot and finish with a bang; one of these days he will."
Gruden confirmed after practice on Wednesday that Jeff Garcia had taken a larger share of the snaps than in the previous three weeks. Garcia started the season opener at New Orleans but was then replaced in the lineup by Brian Griese, who has helped lead the Bucs on a three-game winning streak.
Garcia's extra work was apparently the result of some additional rest for Griese, who has thrown 97 passes over the last two weeks. Griese is listed on the Bucs' official injury report as having had "limited participation" in practice, though that decision was not injury related.
Five Bucs were limited on Wednesday, including four starters. In addition to Griese, the Bucs slowed down linebacker Derrick Brooks, running back Warrick Dunn, guard Davin Joseph and reserve defensive tackle Ryan Sims. Brooks is still working his way through a hamstring strain suffered in the season opener while Joseph is trying to complete his return from a preseason foot injury. Gruden said that Joseph's status is still "up in the air;" the starting right guard also practiced on Wednesday of last week but then was sidelined again by the end of the week.
Dunn is simply on a plan of easy Wednesday's, much like the program the Buccaneers have used for wide receiver Joey Galloway in recent years.
"That's part of our plan with him," said Gruden of Dunn. "He's had his own routine the last couple years and it's worked very well for him. I sure like the quickness and the playmaking that he's putting on our film so we're going to stay with our pattern. He's a real pro. He takes a lot of reps in the walk-through, he's great in the meetings and it gives our young backs like Michael Bennett and the other guys a chance to take some turns."
Three other Bucs were held out of practice completely, including Galloway, who has missed the last two games with a foot injury. Fullback B.J. Askew was still inactive after missing last week with a hamstring injury. The new addition to the list is second-year safety Sabby Piscitelli, who has a sore elbow, according to Gruden.
More from Coach Gruden
On Wednesday, a pair of Buccaneers were honored by the NFL for their performances against Green Bay on Sunday. Brooks was named the NFC Defensive Player of the Week and kicker Matt Bryant took home the NFC Special Teams Player of the Week award.
While the awards were significant for both players, the honor for Bryant was particularly gratifying. The veteran kicker made all three of his field goals in the win over the Packers, including the game-winner late in the fourth quarter, and he did so under exceedingly difficult circumstances. Bryant's infant son, Tryson, passed away suddenly and unexpectedly last Wednesday.
Bryant chose to play in Sunday's game even though it fell just a day after Tryson's funeral. He meant for the game to be another way to honor and recognize his son, and he punctuated that honor with a perfect performance.
Gruden informed the team of the two awards during the Bucs' early morning meeting on Wednesday. Later, after practice, the coach addressed the emotional impact of Bryant's honor, as well as several other topics.
"It was very special," said Gruden. "Obviously what occurred last week was just a terrible tragedy, and that's not going anywhere. The sorrow and disappointment and all those things are still devastating. But he won the games for us two weeks in a row with last-second field goals. We're really happy for him. We're still very sorry and really concerned about our kicker but it was a great award for he and Derrick Brooks."
On if it's a challenge to get all the quarterbacks prepared: "We've used a lot of players already. Obviously Jeremy Zuttah and Byron Storer and Antonio Bryant – a lot of guys have taken over right away as starters. That's part of practice. That's why you have practice."
On using the no-huddle on offense: "Well, the referees wind the clocks so fast now anyways. Everybody says our system is so verbal, so wordy. We don't have time to get out of the huddle anymore so usually when we have a long-winded play we just abbreviate it and send them to the line. We just try to speed the game up a little bit and try to get the guys going. I think our offense responds to a quick tempo, an up-tempo style. Sometimes we're in it for awhile, sometimes we're not at all. I like it, I think our players like it and whatever they like usually we go with."
On playing in the high altitude in Denver: "It was challenging playing them out there because they were the two-time defending World Champions. It's always a challenge playing Denver, a Mike Shanahan-coached football team. This is a 3-1 team. People look at our schedule; it's a hard schedule. Forget about the altitude and the crowd noise and the beautiful stadium and the long trip – they're a hell of a football team. They're 3-1 and they're coming off a tough loss. We're going to have to play a great game to beat them."
On the Broncos' offensive ranking and still giving up a lot of sacks: "You bring up the stats to me. Stats, they don't mean that much to me. I've had a lot of people bring stats up to me. They're a hell of a team. They beat San Diego at home, impressively. [Jay] Cutler's playing great. They have a creative attack. And defensively they've given up six or seven long plays but they've played pretty good in some other areas. They're 3-1 because they're a good team and they're well-coached and they're creative and diverse on both sides of the ball and they're talented."
On if he and Brian Griese have worked on eliminating interceptions: "We're going to be okay, I think. He understands that he can't turn the ball over. He knows where I stand and he knows enough about the position, that that's critical to our success. We're going to try to move on. Fortunately we were able to win the football game. But, yeah, there are some things that we talked about and there are some things that we understand clearly. We're going to move on, now. We've got to get ready for another game."