FB B.J. Askew (right) has returned to the practice field but it's not yet sure if he can play in Sunday's game
On an afternoon in which eight of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 53 players either didn't practice or were given limited duty, this post-practice thought by Head Coach Jon Gruden was significant:
"I am one of those coaches that believes you've got to practice to play. I don't want to discount how important I think practice is. We've got a number of guys that have been idle, and I think it affects the way you play. It's a tough business, especially when you don't practice."
Gruden was responding to a question regarding starting left guard Arron Sears, who was limited on Wednesday and held out completely on Thursday after sustaining a blow to the head on the practice field. However, it could have easily applied to a number of Buccaneers, especially veteran tailback Warrick Dunn.
Tampa Bay's coaching staff hopes that Sears will be able to play on Sunday against Kansas City despite receiving what was probably a mild concussion on Wednesday afternoon. If he can't play, however, the substitution plan is relatively simple; versatile rookie lineman Jeremy Zuttah would almost certainly step into the starting lineup in Sears' place.
If Dunn is unavailable on Sunday, however, the situation is more complicated, as the Bucs found out last weekend in Dallas.
Dunn sustained a back injury in Week Six in a win over Seattle but was kept active the following Sunday in Dallas. Pregame evaluations suggested he could contribute to the offense, but he ended up getting just one carry and two receptions. Not only did that mess with the Bucs' two-halfback rotation with Earnest Graham, but it also impact the team's fullback situation, because Graham was supposed to see a significant amount of time in that spot, in front of Dunn. When Graham had to concentrate on tailback, the Bucs had just one more fullback to put in the game, and that was Jameel Cook, who had only been with the team for two weeks.
The Bucs have averaged just 73 rushing yards per game over the past two weeks after piling them up at a 136-per-game clip through the first six games.
"Well we had two halfbacks and two fullbacks," said Gruden of the Bucs' previous rushing success. "We had [Byron] Storer and [B.J.] Askew; we had two fullbacks going earlier in the year, and we had two halfbacks. We had fresh, good players and we had a neat little rotation going. Obviously, with Warrick's injury lingering and two fullbacks out…I'm not making excuses. Jameel Cook is just getting back into it. He was out of football for awhile.
"We're struggling right now with lining it up in some ways. I'll be honest with you, it's not as easy as it sounds. It's something we've got to all clean up. We've got to fight through this, we've got to do some things better, and that we will."
Exactly how the Bucs will do that in Kansas City on Sunday isn't yet clear. Dunn is missing work this week but could be ready by the weekend, though he would likely have to see some improvement by Friday.
"The thing with him is he's such a game-day guy," said Gruden. "He's played so long, he knows himself very well. He's got a lot to prove to himself more than anyone. It's just right now, we don't think he's physically ready to go. We'll see where he is tomorrow."
The team could also get reserve running back Michael Bennett more involved. The Bucs might have turned to Bennett for some help in Dallas but he had been included on the list of eight game-day inactives. That had been made necessary by injuries at other spots, most notably wide receiver. Joey Galloway and Ike Hilliard were both coming off injuries and the Bucs kept a fifth receiver, Brian Clark, on the active list as insurance and for Clark's good work on special teams.
A former Chief (2006-07) who was also once a 1,300-yard man in Minnesota, Bennett has seen action in just half of the Bucs' eight games so far this year. He has carried five times for 11 yards and caught one two-yard pass. The Bucs might structure their inactive list differently this Sunday and keep Bennett at the ready against his former team.
"In fairness to the situation, the two halfbacks [Graham and Dunn] have played extremely well," said Gruden. "Given our situation we've only dressed four backs for the first six or seven weeks. Special teams has something to do with that. But there's a chance you'll see some of Mike Bennett this week, and like a lot of guys in pro football they've got to make good with their opportunities. I know he's prepared to play well and hopefully he does if we need him."
Could the backfield possibly welcome back Askew, the opening-day starter at fullback who hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in Chicago in Week Three? Askew has definitely piqued interest in that notion by returning to the practice field this week, but Gruden sounded far from confident that the talented back would be ready to play by Sunday.
"This has been real frustrating; this will be six weeks now," said the coach. "It was a serious injury he suffered in the Chicago game, and hamstrings are tough, man. The hard tears, they don't heal as quickly as you'd like them to. You're talking about a 233-pound guy. He is making progress, he is practicing, but he is somewhat limited at this point. So his status for the game is very questionable."
If Graham ends up with the bulk of the carries against Kansas City's 32nd-ranked rush defense, the Bucs very well could increase the load on Cook, who played his first five seasons in Tampa. Despite that head start in the Buccaneers' system, Cook still faced a fairly significant learning curve when he got back to One Buccaneer Place 15 days ago.
"We've made a lot of changes from the last time we saw Jameel Cook, a lot of changes," said Gruden. "His role really was the lead dog for Mike Alstott at that time. He was the escort for Alstott and Mike escorted the other backs. So our things have changed and he's picking it up and I think it's a credit to him. Hopefully he's going into Week Three now and he can play a lot more football for us."
The Buccaneers were 2-2 in the second "quarter" of the season, balancing dominant wins over Seattle and Carolina with two narrow road losses in Dallas and Denver. The Bucs had a three-turnover day against the Panthers, a big passing night against the Seahawks and 6.3 yards per carry in Denver. The special teams were a bit of a problem in the win over Seattle but a real strength in Dallas. There were five sacks surrendered by the Tampa Bay O-line in the two losses and just one in the two wins.
Obviously, the Bucs displayed different strengths and weaknesses during their four games of October. But one thing remained constant the entire month: The Buccaneers' defense was extremely hard to score on.
Tampa Bay allowed only 42 points during the month of October. Only one team in the NFL – the undefeated Tennessee Titans – allowed fewer, but it was just one point fewer and the Titans played only three games in October to the Bucs' four. Tampa Bay's average of 10.5 points allowed per game over the last four weeks was the best in the NFL.
Points Allowed Per Game in October
The Bucs have allowed only three touchdowns over their last four games, the best in the NFL in October. Pittsburgh and Tennessee both allowed five, in three games played; nobody else was lower than six.
Tampa Bay was not first in yards allowed per game during October; at 240.8, it was second to Pittsburgh's 235.7. But the Bucs did lead the league in fewest passing yards allowed per game (166.0) and were the stingiest team in the NFL when it came to third-down conversions.
More from Coach Gruden
In addition to updating the team's injury status, Gruden touched on a variety of other subjects after Thursday's practice.
On if RB Carnell Williams did more this week in his second week back at practice: "Yeah, actually we had a 12-play simulation of the Chiefs. We did the best we could and Carnell took, I think, 10 or 11 straight plays. It's exciting, you know? It's exciting to see him out there, and not only see him out there but the progress. He really looked good today. Next week during the bye week we'll put the pads on and we'll try to make it a little more tough. But step two went well today."
On the thought that the Bucs' running game is struggling: "The running game actually, statistically-speaking, wasn't great in Seattle, but when you take the ball and put together a 10-minute drive and run the ball 12 times with a lead in pro football, that's almost unprecedented. It doesn't happen. So the running game wasn't bad in the Seattle game. It wasn't what we want but it was pretty good in some critical situations. There's a lot that goes into it.
On if it's even more important to run the ball in the red zone than elsewhere on the field: "That's every red zone tape we look at. Over the years, I think the years I've called the plays, if I've led the league in one thing I've been one of the league leaders in running the ball in the red zone. Big believer in that. I think our first-down carries last week, we lost yards twice. And we got stopped on third down on one. And we do have a pretty good quarterback here and we're going to try to accentuate anything we've got to do to win a football game. If we've got to throw it every snap we will."
On WR Michael Clayton's contributions on offense: "He's a good player. I tell you what, you talk about running the ball, he's got as much to do with us running the ball as anyone. He is a hell of a football player, physical. He made an unbelievable catch last week away from his body in the red zone. If we give him a little better opportunity to run with it afterwards, that might be a score. So there are some good things that Mike's doing. With Galloway coming back, we'll just have to do the best we can to try to utilize all the guys. I really appreciate their being unselfish and supportive of one another. Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn have done that, shared the ball. Our receivers have done that, and it's a credit to the guys. I think they all realize right now with some of the injuries right now we're going to need everybody to step their game up."
On if rookie RB Clifton Smith has earned a longer opportunity: "I think so. He did some good things. He did some really good things. Short-area quickness; he caught the ball; decisive. We've got to take care of the ball. Got to take care of the ball – I don't want to say it any more than that."
On Smith fielding punts and charging immediately forward: "I like that. A lot of guys go backwards. I'm not saying Dexter [Jackson] did or does, I'm just saying a lot of guys retreat, go the other way because there's no one there. When you go forward there's everybody coming at you. It's not a job that everybody is after. There aren't a lot of guys that want to return kickoffs and punts in the National Football League. You stand down there on the sidelines, and I stand behind players. It's a bizarre scene. These guys are flying down there. It's not for everybody. It takes experience and you've got to acquire the experience. Some of the great returners struggle their first and second years in the history of this league. So we're going to stay with Dexter, keep working with him, but we do like the decisiveness that Clifton showed and we think he has promise."
On how Jeff Garcia played down the stretch in Dallas: "It's easy to be critical in defeat but he had almost a career day against Seattle. He was I think 15 or 16 out of 20 against Carolina in a huge game. He made some nice plays in Dallas. We've got to be honest: I didn't do a very good job and we didn't play well enough as a team. We've all got to throw our hat in there and assume some responsibility but I've got a lot of confidence in Jeff. Hopefully we can all get clicking again."