With the Bucs staying close on the scoreboard, RB Cadillac Williams has received more handoffs the last two weeks
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their bye week averaging a paltry 43.3 rushing yards per game, and somehow came out of it with a newly-potent ground attack. In a near-miss at New Orleans and a home victory over Cincinnati, the Bucs averaged 156.5 rushing yards per outing, an improvement somewhere in the order of 260%.
Now, the most obvious change the Buccaneers made during the bye week was at quarterback, where rookie Bruce Gradkowski took over after starter Chris Simms was lost to a spleen injury. And while Gradkowski's mobility has certainly helped – more on that below – he has "only" contributed 19 rushing yards per game in his two starts. That doesn't come close to accounting for the 113.2-yard improvement.
Surely the difference is either up front, where rookies Jeremy Trueblood and Davin Joseph, have been worked into the starting lineup; or in the backfield, where Cadillac Williams has broken out with back-to-back strong performances; or in the opponent, as the Bucs have faced the 20th and 25th-ranked rushing defenses in the last two weeks; or maybe even in the play-calling, which has included some more ambitious ways of moving the ball on the ground.
Well, yes, all those things have certainly contributed to the much-needed improvement in the ground game. But let's not dismiss the Gradkowski factor completely. You see, his success throwing the ball the last few games has helped the rushing attack immeasurably. That's no knock on Simms; everyone involved in the Bucs' passing game has played better in the last two contests.
"We're throwing the ball better," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after the Bucs' Friday practice. "We're not way behind and that has a lot to do with it. When you can throw the ball with some success, you become a little harder to defend. I think it's a credit to Bruce and obviously to the offensive team for having more success throwing the football. That's opened up some running lanes and made us a little bit harder to defend."
That and a defensive resurgence have helped the Bucs either take early leads or at least stay tight against New Orleans and Cincinnati. In each of the first three games, the Bucs fell down by two touchdowns early and couldn't afford to run the ball as much as they would have liked.
Now, Gradkowski's 38 rushing yards through his first two starts are nothing to sneeze at, either. Last year, Simms and Brian Griese, the two players who took all of the snaps at quarterback, combined for 43 rushing yards during the entire season. In 2004, those two plus Brad Johnson went crazy on the ground, racking up 54 rushing yards on the season.
That's why it's been such a foreign sight to see Gradkowski repeatedly win footraces to the sticks on key third-and-sevens over the past two games.
"Seriously, you have to stand back and say, 'Did he just do that? Really?'" said Gruden of his thrilled reaction when Gradkowski has kept a drive alive with his legs. "We haven't had that. Let's be honest, pick up anybody's film. A lot of these people who keep drives alive, it's because of the mobility of the quarterback. He's able to dodge a guy, dodge another guy and throw the ball for a first down or run himself."
A six-yard scramble on third-and-six is really good for more than six yards to the eventual rushing total in most cases. By keeping the drive alive, it gives the offense more snaps by the end of the game, and some of those snaps are going to be, say, 11-yard runs by Williams.
Gruden has seen this week's opponent, the Eagles, do the very same thing on too many occasions to remember.
"I know McNabb, for crying out loud, has done it time and time and time again," said Gruden. "To have that as a possibility, as a weapon, is something that really excites us. Hopefully he can continue to pick his spots wisely and stay healthy when he chooses to go."
And hopefully the Buccaneers' running game will stay healthy as a result.
As previously mentioned this week, newly-acquired cornerback Phillip Buchanon could get a chance to return punts this Sunday. That may depend on how well Brian Kelly's foot responds to another 48 hours of rest.
Kelly is trying to deal with a confounding turf-toe injury that has caused him to be deactivated for three of the Bucs' first five games. Kelly didn't practice on Thursday or Friday and Gruden wasn't any more optimistic about the status of his starting left cornerback at the end of the week than he was at the beginning.
If Kelly has to be deactivated, the Bucs might be more likely to keep another cornerback active, which could lead to a spot on the 45-man game-day list for Buchanon. That would obviously be the first step in getting Buchanon into a game.
Since the team probably won't make a final decision on Kelly until game day, the decision on who will return punts will have to wait, too. The team's usual punt returner, wide receiver Mark Jones, missed last week's game with a hamstring injury but is getting better, according to Gruden. The coach suggested the job could still fall to Jones, Buchanon, Ike Hilliard or Joey Galloway.
"Brian Kelly's status impacts what we decide to do," said Gruden. "If he's well enough to play, give it a go, we let him go. So we've got to kind of wait and make sure we understand how many corners are available before we make a decision. [Kelly] has unfortunately got that toe, and it doesn't look like he's going to play. We'll remain hopeful, but there's no change."
Gruden also said on Friday that the team does not plan to activate quarterback Luke McCown from the physically unable to perform (PUP) list to the 53-man roster prior to Sunday's game. McCown just finished his first week of practice with the team after spending the first six weeks of the season on PUP. The Bucs can continue to look at him on the practice field for two more weeks before they will be forced to make a decision.
"He has looked good on the field," said Gruden. "He's looked pretty good, but we have that 21-day period to make our decision. We'd like to hold off on that, I think, for a couple more days."
The Buccaneers didn't make any changes to their official injury report on Friday, but they did welcome defensive end Simeon Rice back to practice. Rice missed the first two days of practice with a shoulder ailment and, Gruden indicated on Friday, a "dental issue." Gruden said that Rice is "ready to roll," though he remains questionable on the injury report.
The Eagles did make a notable change to their injury report on Friday, downgrading starting running back Brian Westbrook from probable to doubtful. However, according to Philly's injury report, Westbrook did practice fully on Friday after sitting out the full-team portions of Thursday's session.
The Eagles also upgraded starting left tackle Tra Thomas (back) from questionable to probable and removed starting right guard Shawn Andrews (neck) from the report completely.