FB B.J. Askew will play against the Vikings after missing the previous five games with a hamstring injury
Gaining rushing yards against the Minnesota Vikings defense has been tough sledding this year. Fortunately the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, next up to test that defense, just got one of their lead dogs back.
B.J. Askew, the Buccaneers' opening-day starter at fullback, likely won't be in on the first play on Sunday, but he is available to help the Buccaneers' 11th-ranked rushing attack to try to crack the Vikings' third-ranked rush defense.
Askew hasn't played since suffering a hamstring injury in the Bucs' win at Chicago in Week Three. He was questionable on Friday's injury report after practicing essentially without limits this past week, and on Sunday morning he got clearance from the Buccaneers' training staff to play. Seventh-year man Jameel Cook is slated to start the game at fullback but the versatile Askew should see playing time, too.
Askew's backfield mates, Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn, also were questionable on Friday's report and also passed their pregame running tests. Graham actually hasn't missed a game this year but he sustained a knee injury in Kansas City two weeks ago that had him working overtime to get back up to speed during the bye week. Dunn has essentially missed the last two games with a back injury that has bothered him since the Seattle game in mid-October.
Graham and Dunn are expected to resume their time-sharing arrangement that helped the Buccaneers average 136.0 rushing yards per game through the first six weeks of the season. This week, at least, they won't be ceding any carries to the recently-activated Cadillac Williams. Williams is off to the PUP list but today will be included among the Bucs' eight game day inactives as the team looks to ease him back into live action.
The Vikings' defense will be at full strength, as both of the starters on their injury report on Friday, pass-rushing dynamo Jared Allen and starting free safety Madieu Williams will play and start despite shoulder injuries.
So, which will prevail, the running game picking up 115.9 yards per game and regaining its original lineup or the rushing defense holding opponents to 70.1 yards per game and featuring two of the game's best defensive tackles in Kevin Williams and Pat Williams? Or will the Buccaneers simply avoid that battle and try to beat the Vikings and their 19th-ranked pass defense through the air?
Don't count on that latter strategy. Head Coach Jon Gruden said his team can't abandon its strengths simply because the Vikings have been tough to run on.
"Before all of our injuries, we were a very balanced team," said Gruden. "That's the way we want to play. We want to attack the other team with both the run and the pass. We want to protect the ball and get it back on defense. We want to possess the ball, move the chains so that we can get deeper into our playbook."
And who will get the majority of the carries? Graham actually played a good portion of the Kansas City game after hurting his knee, further cementing his reputation as one of the team's toughest and most selfless players. The ailing knee kept him from practicing fully this week and will surely be another hurdle for him to overcome today. The Bucs will take everything that Graham can give them today.
"I'd like to play number 34 on every play, and he knows that," said Gruden. "He's one of the main reasons we're where we are, at 6-3. I'd like to get Earnest and Warrick out there together, too. Those are two great, great players and we want to lean on them."
The Buccaneers are aware of the size of the challenge they face today, of course. The Vikings are sixth in the league in defense overall and, most importantly, are very strong up front.
"They have so much talent," said Gruden. "They've got a great rush on the outside and the two tackles are just outstanding. Kevin Williams is hard to block but even when you do get a good block on him he gets his hands up and knocks down the pass.
"What a lot of people haven't mentioned is the pressure they get out of the nickel defense. They send rabid dogs after you out of the nickel, apply just nasty pressure. And if you pick up the blitzer, now do you have a back on Kevin Williams? They'll zone-blitz you, too, and they've got good veteran players in the secondary to make it work.
"We have our hands full today, but we're excited for the challenge."
In addition to Williams, the Buccaneers have deactivated QB Brian Griese, WR Dexter Jackson, S Jermaine Phillips, T James Lee, TE Alex Smith, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Griese, Phillips and Smith are out due to injury.
Without Smith, the Bucs are down to two tight ends. Expect both John Gilmore and Jerramy Stevens to play extensively as the Bucs continue to employ two-TE sets frequently.
The Vikings have only 52 players on their roster and thus had to name just seven game-day inactives. Those seven are LB Erin Henderson, T Marcus Johnson, DE Otis Grigsby, FB Jeff Dugan, WR Robert Ferguson, DT Letroy Guion and designated third quarterback John David Booty.
The Buccaneers and Vikings will kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. You'll find the NFL.com Game Center, complete with live play-by-play and statistical updates, at this location once the game has begun. On the Buccaneers.com home page, we'll post a review of all the action at halftime and an extensive game story, with links for stats, photos, scoring information and more, shortly after the final whistle.