G Davin Joseph played in his first game of the season Sunday in Denver and helped keep the Bucs' running game rolling
On the second play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' second drive on Sunday in Denver, running back Earnest Graham ran over right guard and tackle for a gain of 14 yards. On the next play from scrimmage, running back Warrick Dunn went in the same direction and found a seam that opened up into a 38-yard scamper.
Providing key lead blocks on both of those carries was the right guard, who was about seven minutes into his first live action of the 2008 season.
That guard was third-year man Davin Joseph, the supremely talented lineman who had anxiously watched his teammates play the first month of the season without him. Joseph sustained a foot injury during the second week of the preseason and began a rehab process that never seemed to have a precise ending date. In fact, Joseph had seemed on track to make his 2008 debut a week earlier before suffering a bit of a setback on the practice field leading up to the Green Bay game.
Fortunately for Joseph, the Buccaneers won three of those four games in which he was inactive, and his replacement, rookie Jeremy Zuttah, acquitted himself very nicely. And unfortunately for Joseph, Tampa Bay lost in his debut in Denver, failing to find a consistent offensive groove in a 16-13 decision.
But the running game remained strong, and the team didn't hesitate to pound it right over Joseph's back.
"He played well," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of Joseph's 2008 debut. "It's his first start. We tried to go after them early right behind Davin, let him come off the ball. I thought he did do some good things particularly in the running game, and showed good inside presence. His foot didn't appear to be a problem."
Joseph had to sit through a similar start to the season when he was a rookie, missing the first three games and four starts of the 2006 season due to a knee injury suffered in practice before the opener. He still quickly became a fixture at right guard and by the end of last season looked to be on the verge of developing into one of the league's elite players at his position. To have his third season delayed was tough, but he's now ready to build on the promise he showed in 2007.
"It feels good to be back," said Joseph. "Coming in I felt like I could contribute and it was tough to watch the first four games. I thought I played okay but I could have played better."
The Bucs ran the ball very well with Joseph in the lineup, gaining 139 yards and averaging 6.3 yards per tote. Of course, Tampa Bay's running attack has been strong all season, ranking ninth in the league with 134.8 yards per game. They might have piled up even more yards in Denver if down-and-distance and scoreboard situations hadn't forced them to the air.
"We've got good backs," said Gruden. "We've got some good linemen. We're running the ball pretty good strategically and physically. I think our guys are doing a good job. But once again, when you get in second-and-10, when you get in third-and-10, you're going to have to throw the football in this league. We are pleased with the running game as a whole. We think we can do better."
With Joseph back in the lineup, there's reason to believe they will.
Red Means Stop
On Monday, Gruden said he was reasonably pleased with the team's offensive work in the red zone this year, despite an obvious missed opportunity in the first half, when Brian Griese missed a wide-open Jerramy Stevens in the end zone.
"You know, we've missed some open targets" said Gruden. "We missed Stevens wide open yesterday. We scored in the red zone on another possession and then we had another drive late in the two minute drill. So, yeah, I was pleased yesterday. We like to score touchdowns, but you've got to make plays down there when you get the opportunity."
Overall, the Bucs' offense is producing almost exactly the way it did in the red zone last year. In 2007, Tampa Bay scored touchdowns on 41.7% of its trips inside its opponents' 20-yard line, scored in some fashion on 84.8% of those drives and averaged 4.17 points per red zone incursion. Through five games this year, those numbers are 38.1%, 85.7% and 4.10 points per drive.
Where the team has improved significantly from last year to 2008 is in its red zone defense. The overall score percentage is about the same – 91.4% last year, 100% so far this year – but the Bucs have been much better at preventing touchdowns. In 2007, 62.9% of those red zone trips ended in touchdowns and opponents scored 5.23 points per time inside the 20. This year, Tampa Bay opponents have just a 30.0% touchdown rate in the Bucs' red zone and have been held to 4.30 points per trip.
Those numbers don't just put the Bucs ahead of where they were last year, they place Tampa Bay among the league leaders in red zone stinginess. The Bucs rank third in the NFC and fourth in the NFL in opponent red zone touchdown percentage.
The team at the top of those rankings? Sunday's opponent, the Carolina Panthers.
Galloway's Status Still Uncertain
Gruden broke out what he called his "White Tiger speech" on Monday.
The "speech" – more a rehashing of the same incomplete information – was in response to a question about wide receiver Joey Galloway, of course. Gruden inadvertently hung Galloway with a new nickname – a rather entertaining one, it must be admitted – in the preseason when he likened the wait for the receiver's debut to zoo-goers hoping to catch a glimpse of a rare feline.
Galloway missed essentially the entire training camp due to a groin injury but was ready to go once the regular season began. Unfortunately, he then sustained a foot injury in Week Two and hasn't played or practiced since. Gruden said he wasn't sure when the painful absence of the team's top deep threat would be over.
"I don't know when he is going to be ready and to speculate wouldn't be fair to our fans," said Gruden. "I just know that he ran yesterday with our assistant training staff. He is feeling better; he is closing in on a return, whether it is Carolina, whether it is Seattle or Dallas after the bye I don't know. He is working at it and we miss him."
Galloway's presence may not have made a difference in Denver, where the Broncos played a very conservative, two-deep defense for most of the afternoon, focusing on taking away the big play. Still, Galloway is a threat to beat any defensive alignment and surely would have provided at least a few big plays over the past three weeks had he been in the lineup.
"I am not going to sugarcoat it, we do miss him," said Gruden. "He has had three straight 1,000-yard seasons for us. He led the NFL in yards-per-catch last year and that is a key guy that we are missing. But our guys are playing hard and we just have to do a better job of coaching."