RB Cadillac Williams has averaged 99 rushing yards a game over the last three weekends
There have been three very distinct divisions in Cadillac Williams' rookie season.
In September, he was practically unstoppable, setting an NFL record with 434 rushing yards in the first three games of his career and providing most of the offensive punch in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 3-0 start. His cleats were even whisked off to the Hall of Fame to commemorate his unparalleled start.
From October 2 through November 13, Williams added very little to that total. A foot injury kept him out of two games and limited him to some degree in the other four. He gained just 82 yards over that span and his team suffered a bit, going 3-3.
Over the last three games, the Williams of September has returned. He hasn't quite duplicated the outlandish numbers – 37 carries here, 148 yards there – but he has run with the same power and sharp-cutting that made him such a force in the early going. Williams has rushing totals of 116, 84 and 96 yards in the last three games, of which the Bucs won two.
Obviously, the tide that has tugged the ebb and flow of Williams' season has been that foot injury. The dates of his injury and recovery don't cut quite as sharply as his statistics, however.
Williams was actually hurt initially in Game Two, during a 128-yard performance against the Buffalo Bills. He was able to play the following weekend and carried 37 more times for 158 yards in a win at Green Bay. He even started the fourth game against Detroit before leaving just prior to halftime.
Williams returned to action for the October 30 game at San Francisco, but carried just 13 times for 20 yards. It's likely that Williams wasn't completely comfortable with his foot in his first game back, but it's hard to pinpoint when he started to really fell like himself again. Neither he nor Head Coach Jon Gruden has used the foot as an excuse since the day Williams returned.
Still, the Bucs' first game against Carolina was also in that low-stat valley. He got just 29 yards on 11 carries against the Panthers on November 6. Now the Bucs are set to play the Panthers again, and Williams is back in the flow. He's healthy, yes – "I'm good. I don't even like to bring up (the foot injury) anymore," he said on Wednesday – but there are other factors that have contributed to his resurgence.
"He can answer how healthy he was then and how healthy he is now, but they cleared him to play so he must have been pretty healthy," said Gruden of Williams and the first Carolina game. "But we are blocking better, and the film dictates that. We'll show you the film. We have come off the ball and done a better job inside and out running the ball. It's going to be a big part of this game. We've got to be able to run the ball in some way, shape or form."
Whatever the reason, Williams feels much more prepared to make an impact this time around. And the Bucs are going to need it. They ran for just 44 yards against the Panthers last month, and that allowed the Carolina pass rush to tee off on quarterback Chris Simms.
"Oh, man, it's like day and night," said Williams, a smooth-running Cadillac once again. "I feel better. The foot is no longer a problem, and hopefully, the outcome will be a little different this time."
In fact, Williams thinks his impact could be even larger on Sunday and down the stretch than it was in September, or at least more varied. He has caught 10 passes in his last five games after grabbing only four in his first five, and he wants to be a more significant part of the aerial attack. He had one very big catch against the Saints last Sunday, a nine-yard play over the middle on third-and-seven inside New Orleans' red zone. Williams as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield would be another way to slow down that Carolina pass rush.
"I'd love to get the opportunity to get more involved in the passing game, get me back there against those linebackers," said the rookie back. "I'm still looking for that opportunity."
The weather could also provide Williams with a new opportunity. Weekend forecasts suggest the game could be played in pretty foul weather in Charlotte, and that would be a first for Williams.
"I've never really played in snow or sleet or anything like that," he said. "But I don't think it would bother me."
No matter how cold it is in North Carolina on Sunday, the Bucs need their rookie sensation to stay hot.
Injury Updates: Bryant Improving
Matt Bryant demonstrated improvement in his strained right hamstring on Thursday in the best way possible: One successful field goal after another.
The Bucs let Bryant try out his sore leg in practice on Thursday afternoon and the results were encouraging. He didn't try any kickoffs, but he put the ball through the uprights on a short series of field goal kicks.
"He kicked field goals and kicked them good," said Gruden. "He made them. So we're excited about that but we didn't overdo it. We'll see how he feels tomorrow and if he feels better we'll do a little bit more tomorrow."
Bryant remains questionable on the Bucs' official injury report but he's obviously making progress after sitting out all of last week's practices and missing Sunday's game in Baton Rouge. It is still likely to be a game day decision between Bryant and Todd France, who handled the kicking duties against the Saints.
The Bucs could even keep both kickers active on the 45-man game day list, but that's not an option they're overly excited about.
"We would obviously be slighted in some areas, in terms of special teams and things like that," said Gruden of the two-kicker idea. "It's always a possibility but we'd like to not do that."
The Bucs' three-man injury report didn't change on Thursday, but while Bryant was raising optimism linebacker Marquis Cooper was moving in the opposite direction. Cooper missed last weekend's game with a chest injury and is on the injury report as probable, but he did not have an encouraging afternoon.
"Marquis Cooper didn't practice very good today," Gruden conceded. "He doesn't look well. "We'll leave him on the list like he is, but he still looks like he's hurting a little bit."
Safety Will Allen is the third player on the report, due to a knee injury that has kept him out of the last three games. He looked good in practice on Thursday and is considered probable for Sunday's game.
QB to QB
On Friday, the Buccaneers will recognize 10 outstanding volunteers at their team headquarters. The volunteers, known as Community Quarterbacks for their commitment to serving others, were selected from nominations received on Buccaneers.com.
The NFL Community Quarterback program recognizes outstanding volunteers in the 32 NFL markets. The program honors individuals who exemplify leadership, dedication and a commitment to improving the communities in which they live through volunteerism.
The 10 Community Quarterbacks will enjoy lunch on the field during Friday's practice. Afterwards, each of the 10 finalists will receive a t-shirt and customized football presented to them by Buccaneers QB Chris Simms.