The Bucs need Cadillac Williams to rediscover the high-flying ways that helped lead his team to two wins over New Orleans last year
Down but not out, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers travel to New Orleans this weekend to take on the surging Saints in a game likely to be won by the team that most effectively runs the football.
For the visitors, that will mean reviving a running attack that through three games has totaled 130 yards. How painful is that statistic? Consider that in Week Four alone, while the Bucs were resting through their bye weekend, 10 teams rushed for more than 130 yards. The Saints' ground attack, with the two-pronged threat of Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, has been healthier if not unstoppable, averaging 103.3 yards per game so far.
"I'm disappointed in the running game," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden. "Until we do something about it, I'll continue to be [disappointed]. But that doesn't get me any awards or anything for being disappointed in our ability to get it going on the ground. We have to earn that and the only way to do that is to suit it up and play.
"We have to block better. We have to do a better job scheming. We have to find a way to run the football."
That need is underscored by that fact that Sunday will mark rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski's first start for the Buccaneers. Pressed into service after starting quarterback Chris Simms suffered a spleen injury, Gradkowski will rely on two weeks of preparation for the Saints thanks to the team's Week Four bye, but – as is the case with any rookie quarterback – the learning curve is steep.
And the first test will come in a difficult classroom.
"They're not going to be pretty excited; they're going to be real excited based on what I witnessed the other night," said Gruden, referencing the raucous Superdome crowd present for the Saints' Monday night victory against the Falcons. "That was awesome. That was a great thrill for me to watch. It's going to be a great challenge for [Gradkowski], let's be honest."
With that in mind, Gruden and the Buccaneers would probably prefer not to have Gradkowski put the ball up 40 times. Instead, he'll likely be asked to limit his mistakes, manage the game and rely on his teammates, primarily running back Cadillac Williams.
"We've just got to get that mindset no matter what teams do, how many they've got in the box, we're going to run the football," said Williams whose longest run of the season so far is just 11 yards. "That's got to be us, and once we start taking on that mentality and everybody buys in, we're going to start making it happen.
"I think as a whole, as an offense, we really need to buy into the running game. We need to take it upon ourselves. Let's be honest [Gradkowski] has no experience right now, so any type of running game helps a quarterback."
Gruden agrees but said that the Bucs have to run better regardless of who is behind center, rookie or veteran.
"I don't care who your quarterback is, you better get your running game going," Gruden said. "You know and I know that's a fact."
The Buccaneers will have that chance against the Saints who are currently ranked 19th in the league in rushing yards allowed, giving up 108 yards per game. Last year in two games against the Saints, the Bucs racked up 282 total rushing yards and came away with two wins. If they can recapture that form, they'll be able to control the clock while taking pressure of their rookie signal-caller. Gruden acknowledges that won't be easy.
"Up in their front with Charles Grant and Will Smith they have arguably two Pro Bowl-caliber defensive linemen," Gruden said. "They've made some changes in their linebacking corner with [Mark] Simoneau. They've brought in some guys – this Fujita guy can really play. And they've got a rookie safety out of Alabama who has a lot of range and coverage ability in [Roman] Harper. And they're playing hard. That's a credit to Coach [Gary] Gibbs and Joe Vitt and the guys who work with them.
"Defensively, Coach Gibbs has come in there with a very disciplined scheme. They've added a few players there, and they're talented and they're getting after people with supreme effort and really sound scheming. They deserve to be where they are right now."
Realizing success in the running game against such an active defense is something the Buccaneers know will take an entire game's worth of commitment – the same kind of commitment demonstrated by the Carolina Panthers this past Sunday when they knocked the Saints from the ranks of the undefeated. After gaining only 64 rushing yards in the first half, the Panthers continued to plug away at the Saints during the third and fourth quarter. The result was 167 total rushing yards by game's end, including the game-clinching 43-yard touchdown scamper by running back DeShaun Foster.
The lesson couldn't be any clearer for the Buccaneers, a team whose star running back has rushed for four touchdowns and nearly 500 yards in the fourth quarter and overtime: consistently feeding Williams throughout the game might just result in a much-needed big scoring play, a possible 100-yard day on the ground and most importantly the team's first win of the season.