RB Cadillac Williams has - not coincidentally - been on a roll during the Bucs' recent hot streak
It's a nearly indisputable fact: As Cadillac Williams goes, so too go the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
Through the Buccaneers' first two games – a 27-0 defeat to the Baltimore Ravens and a 14-3 loss to the Atlanta Falcons – Williams totaled just 59 rushing yards and his longest run went for seven yards. Over the next four games – a span that included two wins and two narrow losses – he averaged 84 yards per game, breaking off longs of 34 and 38 yards and averaging 4.1 yards per carry. Williams success obviously depends on more than just his own talents, as the blocking has to be sound and the scoreboard has to permit a running game, but a big game by the Bucs' tailback usually means a win.
That relationship between Williams' performance and the Buccaneers' success has been evident since the star running back burst onto the scene last season, rushing for an NFL rookie record 434 yards over his first three games…all victories. Going into today's game, the Buccaneers are 6-1 when Williams rushes for at least 100 yards in a single game and a telling 8-0 when Williams carries the football more than 20 times in a game.
Against the New York Giants today, Williams will most likely need to accomplish both if the Buccaneers are to escape from New York with their third consecutive win. And at the very least, he'll need to gain positive yards on first and second down.
First, establishing the running game will help keep the Giants' defense honest and limit the amount of pressure New York's pass-rushers can put on rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski. In victories over their last two opponents, the Giants defense has sacked opposing quarterbacks 13 times. This season, the combination of Pro Bowl defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora has again been particularly effective, resulting in eight sacks through six games.
As is the case with most defenses, the Giants' pass rush is most successful when it doesn't have to account for the running game. Once an offense becomes one-dimensional, Giants defenders are among the best in the league in going after the quarterback. That's exactly what happened in Dallas when the Cowboys fell behind in the score by double-digits. Essentially forced to throw on every down, quarterback Tony Romo was pressured relentlessly. The result was two sacks, several knock-downs and three pressure-induced interceptions.
That's a fact not lost on Williams.
"I think getting the running game going is going to be real important because over the last two or three games the Giants have about 15 sacks," Williams said. "Those guys Strahan and Umenyiora are great D-ends. It's going to be big for us to establish the run."
Effective running – especially on first and second down – will also help the Buccaneers exploit a surprising weakness of the Giants: its pass defense on third down.
"Third down is the money down," said Gradkowski. "That's what we called it in college. That's when you make your money. That's when you keep moving the chains and keep our defense off the field and get that first down."
No defense in the NFL has been worse than the Giants when it comes to allowing opponents to convert on third down – something opposing offenses have done 51.8 percent of the time when in that situation against New York.
"When you pick up good yardage on first and second down, it makes that third down easier and not as predictable to the defense," Gradkowski explained. "You can run the ball, you can throw the ball. That's the kind of things we have to do. We have to be a good, solid offense on first and second down to put us in good position on third down.
"Our offensive line has been doing a great job the last couple of weeks of blocking, and Cadillac is going to run his tail off each and every week. We have great running backs – Mike Alstott, Michael Pittman. If they keep opening up the holes, we'll be alright, and that's the way we can mix it up and do different things on offense."
When the Buccaneers follow that game plane, they are one of the better teams in the league in terms of converting on third down. On third downs in which the team has needed six yards or less to gain a first down, the Buccaneers have converted, on average, four of six chances. But on third downs in which the team has needed seven yards or more to convert, the Buccaneers are just one of seven on average.
Against the opportunistic Giants defense, that second scenario is one the Buccaneers must avoid at all costs, and Williams is the key to accomplishing that.
"Any time we can control the line of scrimmage – when it's third-and-three, third-and-two, third-and-four – you've got a better chance of converting those third downs," Williams said. "The running game will play a big role in getting those chances, so I'm looking forward to it."