RB Warrick Dunn suffered a foot sprain on this play in Minnesota, as the defender fell on the back of his right foot
On the first play of the fourth quarter of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' game in Minnesota on Sunday, running back Warrick Dunn took a handoff, darted around left tackle Kenyatta Walker's block and found a big opening. Before the Vikings could drag him down, Dunn had scampered 20 yards down to the opposition's 15.
It was the kind of big play the Bucs, trailing 13-9 at the time, appeared to need in their comeback attempt in the Metrodome. And, indeed, the play set up Dunn's own go-ahead touchdown run four snaps later.
But Tampa Bay eventually lost that game and – perhaps worse – Dunn's 20-yard run will end up costing him up to a month of action.
After the game, the initial – and hopeful – diagnosis was that Dunn had a right foot contusion. After arriving back in Tampa at about 10:00 p.m. on Sunday, Dunn made a brief visit to the training room but left without crutches and with only a little swelling in the foot. Still, the team put off its official diagnosis until Monday morning.
That was wise. Head Coach Tony Dungy updated Dunn's status on Monday afternoon and the news had turned less encouraging. Dunn has been diagnosed with a mid-foot sprain and is expected to miss several games.
"Warrick has the same type of injury that (cornerback) Dwight Smith had," said Dungy. "It's a foot sprain and it's probably going to be 3-4 weeks. I feel he'll probably have the same rehab as Dwight had and we'll see how fast he comes along."
Smith suffered his own foot sprain in the Atlanta preseason game on August 31. He made his return to the field on Sunday in Minnesota, roughly four weeks later, but might have played the previous Sunday had the Bucs not been on a bye.
Dunn himself believed he had simply smacked his foot hard into the Metrodome turf, but a review of the game video showed why the injury was more severe than originally expected. At the end of the run, the toes on his right foot are in contact with the turf with the rest of the foot bent upwards perpendicularly – picture your back foot as you run as it is coming off the ground. While Dunn is in this position, a defender fell on his foot, causing the sprain.
The Bucs' two-time Pro Bowl back (1997 and 2000) came to the sideline for the next three plays in some pain, but returned for the touchdown run, on which he again went off left tackle and had to cut several times. He was then taken to the locker room for an X-ray examination, which was negative for a break of any kind.
Over the night after returning home, however, Dunn's conditioned worsened. Once he was completely inactive, the foot swelled up and by Monday morning he could barely put his weight on it. He is optimistic of an earlier return than the team is predicting, but in the meantime the Bucs will have to adjust to the loss of their leading rusher of last season. Dunn had 1,133 rushing yards in 2000, including 767 over the last eight games as he became the team's primary ballcarrier.
Second-year tailback Aaron Stecker is second on the Bucs' depth chart behind Dunn, but fullback Mike Alstott is usually considered the Bucs' second option on rushing plays. In fact, Dunn and Alstott had shared the team's carries almost equally through their first three-and-a-half seasons together, before Alstott sustained a knee injury last November in Chicago.
While Alstott's rushing load will now increase, Dungy does not plan to make him the lone featured back. What the team will also not do, according to Dungy, is revamp the offense in Dunn's absence.
"I think we'll work Aaron Stecker and Rabih Abdullah and we'll have Mike Alstott play a little more at half-back with Jameel Cook," said Dungy. "We'll probably just continue with the same way and see who handles it better, Aaron or Rabih. But we won't change a whole lot."
Alstott will continue to play fullback in front of Stecker and Abdullah. When the team wants to line their four-time Pro Bowl back up as the primary runner in a two-back set, rookie fullback Jameel Cook will come in as the blocker.
The Bucs have already weathered injuries, beginning in the preseason, to center Jeff Christy, punter Mark Royals, defensive tackle James Cannida and Smith. Dunn's ailment, however, will be the most noteworthy test of the roster's depth. Alstott, Abdullah and Stecker will be asked to pick up the ground game as the Bucs enter a four-game stretch that includes contests against Green Bay, Tennessee, Pittsburgh and Minnesota.
Alstott is the most accomplished of the three, with 3,338 career rushing yards, good for third place on the Bucs' all-time list, about 500 yards behind Dunn (3,874). Alstott increased his rushing yardage total in each of his first four NFL seasons, 377 to 665 to 846 to 949 in 1999, before injury and Dunn's emergence dropped him back to 465 last year. Surprisingly nimble for such a powerful runner, Alstott has averaged 3.8 yards per carry during his career and is second in team history with 39 touchdowns. Against Minnesota, Alstott carried three times for 24 yards, using his usual tackle-breaking style up the middle.
Abdullah originally made the team as an undrafted free agent out of Lehigh in 1998 and has been very effective in his longer preseason looks each summer. During the past two regular seasons, he has drawn 21 carries and gained 82 yards, an average of 3.9 yards per tote. During the past offseason, Abdullah added about 15 pounds to his frame in order to see some action at fullback.
Stecker went from the Bucs' practice squad in 1999 to the NFL Europe League the next spring, where he earned league Offensive MVP honors with 774 rushing yards. That experience helped him earn a spot on Tampa Bay's active roster in 2000, where his primary role was as the team's kickoff returner. He did get 12 carries during the season, gaining 31 yards. In Minnesota, Stecker took Dunn's spot in the backfield on the team's frenzied last comeback attempt and got the drive started with a 22-yard reception. He finished the game with three catches for 33 yards but did not have a carry.