T Anthony Davis has been getting a good push ahead of RB Cadillac Williams
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 13 of 14 on third down tries of three yards or less this season, an important statistic we looked at in more depth on Tuesday.
So we know the Bucs are getting it done on third-and-short after two seasons of struggles in that area, but exactly where is the offense going when it needs that tough but critical yard to keep a drive alive? Not who's getting the ball – obviously, it has been Cadillac Williams for the most part – but in which direction is he headed after taking the handoff?
More often than not, Williams has darted towards the left end of the Bucs' front line.
The Buccaneers had five minutes and three seconds to kill when they took over the ball in Green Bay last Sunday, clinging to a one-point lead. Williams, already with 30 carries under his belt that afternoon, came out to be the closer. First down: Run to left end, six yards. Second down: Run to left end, four yards. First down: Run to left end, four yards.
In all, Williams carried seven times for 44 yards on that drive, and in each case he chose some gap between the center and the tight end outside the left tackle, even if he sometimes ended up cutting it back to the right before it was all said and done.
You might think the Bucs would be leery about running left considering the two players on that side of veteran center John Wade had zero combined NFL starts coming into 2005. Instead, they've leaned on the left-side tackle-guard duo of Anthony Davis and Dan Buenning, and the two youngsters have more than held up.
"The two guys playing on the offensive line on the left side have a great amount of confidence and have been playing very well, and obviously so has Cadillac," said quarterback Brian Griese, who has also been sacked just five times in three games. "If you look at our running game, the push that they're getting off the line of scrimmage on the left side is something we haven't had here before. It's been very impressive."
Any preseason analysis you could find on the Buccaneers considered their 2005 fortunes in doubt primarily because the offensive line was such a question mark. Tampa Bay came into training camp with just about every position wide open, and with a willingness to try players at multiple positions. Until a starting line took shape and proved itself, it was certainly reasonable to wonder if the Bucs would get the performance they needed up front to be efficient on offense.
Even Griese admits that he was concerned about the offensive line in camp, but not because he lacked confidence in any of the candidates. The problem was injuries. Lots of them. Almost every lineman on the team suffered an injury at some point in camp – Sean Mahan was a notable exception – and a few missed big chunks of time. The man slated to play left tackle, veteran Derrick Deese, barely practiced at all and was later released. Matt Stinchcomb missed three of the four preseason games and Jeb Terry went down with a knee injury in the August opener.
The linemen who were healthy on any given day were worked hard, often with few reserves behind them. As it turned out, that may have helped the Bucs get to where they are now. Davis, for instance, took an enormous amount of reps and came to feel very comfortable at left tackle. Buenning was given an opportunity to start by Stinchcomb's injury and never let it go.
"Those guys got the bulk of the work in training camp, so I think it helped them in a way," said Griese. "It probably didn't help their bodies much, but I think it helped them mentally to come out with that confidence knowing that, 'You know what, I've been through these looks before. I've done it in training camp and now I'm going to take it to the field.'"
The extra work for Davis and Buenning also allowed their teammates to gain confidence in them. Quarterback Chris Simms, for instance, has come to be very impressed with the athletic abilities of Davis, who came into the NFL under the radar as an undrafted free agent.
"He's just a tremendous athlete and I think everybody saw that from his rookie year," said Simms. "Everybody was impressed with his athletic ability, his feet and he just has a great attitude for an offensive lineman. He likes smashing people. Throughout two-a-days and camp this year he was extremely impressive in the run game. Coach was always putting little highlights of him blowing somebody up or taking some defensive tackle to the ground."
Buenning was a fourth-round draft pick in April, and if history was any indication, he would have to wait a season or two to get his crack at a starting job. The last rookie guard to start the majority of a season for the Bucs before 2005 was Ian Beckles in 1990. But Buenning has meshed well with Davis, and both players have displayed a very aggressive style, which has helped Williams get good looks. Rarely has the rookie back been hit behind the line; in many cases, he has been able to start left, build up some steam and then make one quick burst up the first seam he sees.
Head Coach Jon Gruden has been pleased with Buenning's play, as well as with that of Mahan at right guard. Mahan had just eight starts before 2005, all at center last season. In fact, Gruden thinks there are quite a few players who should share in the credit for Williams' incredible start.
"They're both mobile guys, they can pull, they have range and they're athletic enough to get up on the second level and make something happen," said Gruden. "It's been a collaboration, really, from a lot of guys. The two tight ends have played a major role here, Anthony Becht and Alex Smith. There are a number of guys who have contributed, as have the fullbacks. We've been in a lot of two-back sets and somebody's been lead-blocking, too. Those guards are good players and we hope they can get better."
Stadium Gates to Open at 11
The Buccaneers sent out a release on Friday to alert the media and the team's fans that the gates at Raymond James Stadium will open at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday.
Tampa Bay will take on Detroit Sunday, with kickoff at 1:00 p.m. ET. The 11:00 a.m. opening is a return to the normal stadium policy of allowing fan access to begin two hours before kickoff. For the season opener two weeks ago, the gates were opened at 10:30 a.m. ET in order to allow extra time for the new security pat-downs. Since the pat-downs did not significantly slow down the fans' entry, the gate times were returned to normal.
For all remaining games this season, the gates will open two hours prior to kickoff.
Last week, after Cadillac Williams sprained his left foot in a Buccaneer win over Buffalo, the Bucs eased their prized rookie back into action.
Williams was held out of most of Wednesday's practice, did a bit more on Thursday and got the bulk of his week's work on Friday. He then carried 37 times for 158 yards on Sunday in Green Bay.
That formula worked so well, the Bucs have followed it again this week, with Williams still feeling some tenderness in his left foot. Williams practiced relatively little on Wednesday and Thursday but was more involved on Friday and should be ready to go by Sunday.
"He practiced," confirmed Gruden after Friday morning's 90-minute workout. "He's still probable [on the injury report]. It's much like last week. He's still got some soreness, but he did practice today and we expect him to play."
The defensive starter on the injury report, safety Dexter Jackson, did not return to practice on Friday and remains questionable on the injury report. If his hamstring injury, suffered in the first half at Green Bay, keeps him out of the lineup on Sunday, second-year man Will Allen would start at free safety. Allen had two fourth-quarter interceptions against the Packers to help seal the Bucs' 17-16 victory at Lambeau Field.