RBs Earnest Graham (34) and Warrick Dunn (28) led the Buccaneers to a 164-yard ground-game performance against Atlanta
Back in training camp, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers would often practice what they call the "four-minute drill." In this drill, the offense is tasked with icing a victory by pounding out tough yards on the ground, picking up first downs, keeping the clock moving and protecting a victory.
With 3:23 to go in the game Sunday afternoon and the Buccaneers clinging to a 17-9 lead over the Atlanta Falcons, running back Earnest Graham took care of all of those tasks, plus one more.
Starting with a handoff at his own 32 on second-and-10, Graham broke a tackle near the line of scrimmage, got wide, waited for a downfield block from wide receiver Antonio Bryant and rumbled 68 yards for a game-clinching touchdown run. At the end, several Falcons pursuers closed in, but Graham made one last cut inside and eluded a tackler at the goal-line to punch it in.
Graham – who is repeatedly referred to as a "football player" by Head Coach Jon Gruden for his all-around package of skills – isn't necessarily the fastest back in the NFL, but he had more than enough speed to put the game away for the Buccaneers on Sunday.
"Like I was telling the guys, it didn't look like an Adrian Peterson 70-yard run, but I made it," Graham said with a laugh after the game. "It still counts, and I had some guys in front of me blocking. I was good for about the first 40 and I fought for the last little bit. It was a good play. I've got to give credit to everybody on that one.
Graham's career-long run – he had previously set his career long at 47 just last week in New Orleans – was the capper to an outstanding day for the team's two-pronged ground attack. Graham picked up 116 yards on his 15 carries, including the long scoring dash, and veteran Warrick Dunn added 49 yards of his own on 12 carries, including an amazing 17-yard score on third-and-goal in the second quarter.
Oddly enough, each of the Bucs' backs helped each other out on their touchdowns. For his part, Graham credited Dunn for spotting a cutback opportunity earlier in the game on the exact same play that he later bust wide open for his 68-yard scamper.
"It was a good play and I give credit to Warrick," Graham said. "I watched him run the same play about a series earlier and he cut it all the way back, so I kind of had it in the back of my mind to look for the cutback. It happened to be there and it was off to the races.
"We talked about it during the game. I came up to him and I said, 'I don't know how you saw that, to cut all the way back across the defense.' I don't see that all the time. Sometimes I'm a little north-south in my vision. So I saw him do it and I said I was going to look for it and it was there. So I've got to give credit to him. It's great to have a veteran guy like him running the football behind me, because I'm running a lot. I'm definitely happy with what's going on with our running back situation."
Dunn concurred that the communication between him and Graham paid huge dividends.
"I think [our rotation] is definitely working well," Dunn said. "We're talking a lot on the sidelines, telling each other what we see and we're just having opportunities. When we have opportunities, guys can really get into it, see things and communicate, but also get into a flow. I think today was an example of that. We got going a bit running the football and we were able to see things. It was crazy – he had the long touchdown and I had just run that play a series or two before. He read what I saw, so I think that helped him with that run. It was just good on his part.
"I was surprised that the corner disappeared, and when he disappeared it was open. I thought [Graham] was going to run out of gas though. He was a little tired, it was the fourth quarter. He'd been running all game so I thought he was going to run out, but he ran out at the goal line, so that was important. I was happy for him. It was a big play that really sealed the victory for us."
Dunn's touchdown, on the other hand, was a brilliant display of shifty moves. After moving into a goal-to-go situation deep in Atlanta territory in the second quarter, the Bucs were backed all the way up to the 17 by two penalties.
The Bucs called a draw play, which likely would have been thought a success if it did no more than pick up a few yards for a shorter field goal attempt. Dunn had other ideas in mind, bouncing around and stretching the ball across the goal line in one of the team's best plays of the young 2008 season.
"I can't really remember [the play]," the humble Dunn said after the game. "I think it was a draw play and I just tried to make some guys miss and go for the end zone. The guys did a great job blocking. I tried to set blocks up and it was really just a great team effort."
And, fittingly, Graham actually helped out on his teammate's score, throwing a block as Dunn sprinted past. Graham used to spend time playing fullback on occasion for the Buccaneers before he emerged as the starting tailback last year. His newfound status as one of the NFL's more productive runners hasn't put him above the task of blocking for another runner, especially Warrick Dunn.
"I love it," Graham said. "I want to block for that guy. I grew up watching that guy. Blocking for him, starting in the same backfield with him, I want to do my part. Seeing him come in and make those cuts, it's fantastic. People thought he was done, but he's been great and I'm loving every minute of it."
Dunn and Graham are palpably excited about the Bucs' running game early in the year. The two have combined their differing styles and experience levels to help the Bucs average 155 rushing yards per game through two weeks.
It's a relatively small sample of work thus far, granted, but that number easily dwarfs the 117 rushing yards per game the Bucs averaged in 2007.
"It's working out," Dunn said. "I think both guys, we both just want to be involved and get into the game. When you're sitting on the side sometimes it's hard to really get into the game if you're not running in and out of the field. It's working out. I think both of us are really starting to see things and understand things.
"It's important that we backs can help the team. We've talked about it week-in and week-out that we want to be the guys the team relies on to win football games. It's worked out so far."
Added Graham: "We have a great tandem right now with me and Warrick, and then Michael Bennett when he gets in the fold and Cadillac Williams when he gets back. There's something special going on in this backfield, man. Any guy that touches the ball can do something with it, so we're having fun."
Perhaps the only frustrating aspect of the Bucs' ground attack to date is that they haven't gotten as many carries as they probably deserve. After game situations in New Orleans forced the Bucs to throw often – only rushing 20 times – penalties put the offense in some long-yardage situations Sunday and limited the two backs to only 27 carries between them.
For comparison, the Bucs averaged 28 rushing attempts per game in 2007. Still, neither Graham nor Dunn is fretting. They know their opportunities will come as the offense continues to jell.
"The way the game was going, we'd get a decent gain on first down, and then we'd have a penalty or we'd have a sack or something like that," Graham said. "It's hard to keep that tendency going when we keep shooting ourselves in the foot. From the end of the second quarter into the third quarter, we kept shooting ourselves in the foot. We needed to make some plays in that last drive and we did, so it worked out for us.
"I thought we did pretty well last week and I felt we did well this week when we got some touches. In all facets of the game, chemistry and all those things, are going to get better, as far as the receivers and quarterbacks and running backs and everyone. We're a pretty deep team and we have a lot to work out. I think you're going to see that in the coming weeks."
In the end, it's about balance, according to Graham.
"We did well with what we got," Graham said. "We like to be a balanced offense. We left some plays out there in both the running game and the passing game, so we want to be able to hit all plays. When we need to run the ball we want to be able to do it. If we need to pass the ball to win, we want to be able to do that as well. You try not to make your mind up on what you're doing going into the game. We had to make some plays in the running game to win it, and we did."