The Bucs' defense remembers its efforts to stop Ricky Williams during the preseason
The NFL is buzzing just a bit this week about the anticipated return of Ricky Williams, the sixth-year, 6,000-yard veteran back who hasn't played in a regular-season game in 22 months.
To most viewers, Williams is a bit of a mystery at this point, an enigma wrapped in a bushy beard and a reportedly apparently trimmer physique. How will he fare after that long absence; after his month-long suspension; after first retiring abruptly from and then returning surprisingly to the team; after finding a backfield now already populated by a star-in-the-making in second-overall pick Ronnie Brown.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers don't consider it quite that mysterious, though. The Bucs had the benefit of a front row seat when Williams gave a little cameo performance in an August 27 preseason game in Miami. All Williams did that evening, against a defense that has allowed virtually no one else to run against it this year, is run 10 times for 59 yards, including five times for 31 yards and a touchdown on the game's first drive.
Yes, it was a preseason game, and that's an important distinction. The Bucs' run defense has stood up to the likes of Willis McGahee, Curtis Martin, Ahman Green and Kevin Jones since the regular-season began, and it is certainly confident in its chances against Williams. Still, one can't deny that the former New Orleans Saints first-rounder looked sharp.
"He did, didn't he?" said Bucs Head Coach Jon Gruden with a wry smile, when reminded of that August performance this week. Gruden's Bucs will be the first team Williams faces after his return from a four-game suspension, as Tampa Bay and Miami square off in Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
Brown has played well as the Dolphins' main ballcarrier, particularly in his last two games, with 229 rushing yards combined against the Panthers and Bills. Still, it's a good bet that the Dolphins will find a way to get Williams involved.
"The return of Ricky Williams changes the dynamics of their offense," said Gruden. "I am confident Ricky Williams has a lot to prove and I know he's a great back."
The Dolphins could have taken another week to activate Williams after the end of his suspension, and as of Friday they hadn't officially made that move. But Head Coach Nick Saban has already said that Williams would play, and he even bantered with the media about starting both backs in some undisclosed way. That leaves the Bucs to figure out just how Brown and Williams are going to be utilized, and figure out a way to stop it.
"You know they can do one of three things," said Brooks of a package that put both backs on the field. "Somebody has got to run it, somebody has got to block. Or they are both going out for a pass route. We have no idea with both of them in the backfield. And if that presents itself you just have to read your keys."
Defensive tackle Chris Hovan, whose presence at nose tackle has helped the Bucs' improve their running defense dramatically this year – it's currently first in the league in yards allowed per game (61.6) and per carry (2.8) – agrees with Brooks. The Bucs have to continue doing what has worked so well through five games.
"Play your defense as called," said Hovan. "It's what we do, not what they do, and that's how the great defenses are. Whatever they're going to give us, we still have to play our defense, play our keys and make the play. We're no stranger to formations around here, because Coach Gruden did it all to us during training camp. Great defenses don't react, they play their defense. That's what we're going to have to do on Sunday."
The Dolphins could five running backs on the field if they wanted to, but there's one aspect of the game's math that won't change. They can only bring one football into play.
"Follow the ball, man," said Gruden. "There's only one ball. They can only give it to one of them at a time, so let's not get too far away from the reality of it all. Ronnie Brown's a great receiver and people underestimate Ricky Williams as a receiver, also. They're both physical men who can pick up blitzes and we all know they can run."
As it turns out, that August preview, while it wasn't particularly fun for the Bucs at the time, may be helpful in the long run. The Bucs' starting defense was on the field for that first drive and they have a good memory for what they saw.
"It helps a lot," said Hovan. "You're no stranger to the way he runs. Guys here have played Ricky Williams a number of times since he's been in the league. We know how Ronnie Brown runs and how Ricky runs, so I think we're going to be prepared for both backs."
Safety Jermaine Phillips has been downgraded to "doubtful" for Sunday's game at Miami, after starting the week as "questionable" on the official injury report.
The same thumb injury that cost Phillips last weekend's game against the Jets will apparently keep him out two weeks in a row. The designation of doubtful does leave open the possibility of a player improving and being upgraded again, but it is very rare for a player who stays at doubtful to play in the next game.
Second-year man Will Allen will make his second consecutive start at strong safety if Phillips indeed is held out.
However, the Bucs' other starting safety, Dexter Jackson, returned to practice on Friday. He had been rested on Thursday as a precautionary measure to protect a slightly tweaked hamstring, but he had no problem on the practice field on Friday. Cornerback Juran Bolden, who also missed Thursday's practice due to a stomach illness, was back on Friday as well. Gruden said he expects both defensive backs to be fine.
Rookie running back Carnell Williams was neither upgraded nor downgraded on Friday; in fact, there is little new to report on his status as he remains questionable for the game. Gruden said Williams did a bit more on Friday than he had on Thursday, which means his workload has increased throughout the week. His availability will probably not be determined until shortly before the game; the Bucs, of course, are keeping a very close eye on his progress.
"We'll see how he is tomorrow, and then we'll see how he is tomorrow night, and then we'll see how he is at wakeup call on Sunday morning and we'll see how he is when he gets to the stadium," said Gruden. "I just can't come out and say he's not going to play; I can't come out and say he's going to play, and if he does play how many plays."