RB Michael Pittman's 40 yards on four carries helped the Bucs get over the magical 100-yard mark on Sunday
When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last met the Carolina Panthers, almost exactly a month ago, they were coming off a loss in San Francisco in which they had run for just 43 yards.
That was disappointing for a team that had averaged nearly 140 yards on the ground during a 5-1 start to the season, and it didn't get any better against Carolina's stout defensive front. The Bucs gained just 44 yards on 17 carries, forcing quarterback Chris Simms into a vulnerable position in which the Panthers' premier pass rushers could lock their sights on him.
Simms completed 10 of 13 passes for 121 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in the first half of that Carolina game, but his third pass of the second half was picked off and returned for a touchdown. The resulting 17-point deficit and the lack of a running game made the second half much more calamitous for the young passer.
Carolina's defense can do that to a team. When they're keyed in on the pass rush, a loaded front four that features two of the league's best pass-rushers in ends Julius Peppers and Mike Rucker can make it very difficult for a quarterback to set his feet and get through his reads. The Bucs, playing with a still-limited Cadillac Williams in the backfield, struck no fear in the Panthers' front seven with their running game that afternoon, and the result was the only loss by more than five points by Tampa Bay all season.
Since that afternoon, however, the Bucs have won three of four and had a chance to go undefeated before missing a short, tying field goal at the end of a 13-10 loss to Chicago. In those four games, Tampa Bay's offense has averaged 110 rushing yards per game, picked up 4.0 yards per tote and scored five rushing touchdowns. It hasn't quite been the unstoppable ground game the Bucs rode to a 4-0 start, but it's getting there, and that could be a critical development down the stretch for this playoff-contending team.
"Cadillac [Williams] is running hot right now," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We've run the ball pretty well the last few games. I don't see anybody shredding Carolina on the ground, though. We're looking carefully under every rock to see if there's a crack there somewhere. They play a lot of eight-man fronts."
The Panthers have the second-best run defense in the league, allowing just 85.5 yards per game and 3.5 yards per carry. They've also sacked opposing quarterbacks 34 times, eighth-best in the NFL on a per-play basis. Those two things go hand-in-hand, as the Bucs certainly know. Since that first Carolina game, Simms has thrown just one interception in four games and been sacked just five times. In the Bucs' three wins, Simms has gone down just once.
"He's done a good job," said Gruden. "Let's give him credit on his decision making. We've run the ball better, to be honest with you, and we've run the ball more. I think when you do that, obviously, with success, and you are not exposing yourself to these modern day blitzes, and a vast majority of looks that maybe you don't want to see repeatedly in the course of a game."
The Bucs' running game has also helped them come out on top in close games over the last month. Williams' hard running was instrumental in the game-tying, fourth-quarter touchdown drive in Atlanta two weekends ago, and his 22-yard carry on third-and-one in New Orleans helped sustain a fourth-quarter drive that drained five minutes off the clock. Williams just missed the 100-yard mark against the Saints (22 carries for 96 yards) but he has shown the same style that made him a sensation in the early going, a leg-pumping, second-effort attack that often makes big plays out of little ones.
As a team, the Bucs got over 100 yards on the ground – all the way to 133, in fact – which is a critical barometer of success for the team. The Bucs are 6-1 this year when they reach the century mark in rushing yards, and that's no sudden phenomenon. Under Gruden over the last four seasons, the Bucs have rushed for at least 100 yards in 26 regular-season games, and they're 21-5 in those contests.
The Bucs got over 100 in Tiger Stadium in part due to Michael Pittman's 40 yards on four carries. He's averaging nearly six yards per tote as an extremely valuable reserve, and fullback Mike Alstott has been a nearly unstoppable force around the goal line, with six rushing touchdowns.
"We do have a great nucleus of backs," said Gruden. "Pittman came up big for us. And Mike Alstott, a credit to him, is having a great year as a blocking fullback. When he does get a chance to catch it or run with it, he's done very good also. But I was really pleased with our ability to run the ball after the first couple of series [in New Orleans], on a slick surface and against a very tough opponent."
The Panthers, at least by the numbers will be an even tougher opponent next Sunday. Tampa Bay's running game seems to be finding its legs just in time for the last month of the playoff chase, but it may need to come up big for the Bucs to prevail in Carolina.
This week begins the same as the last, with the Bucs uncertain if kicker Matt Bryant will be available to boot field goals in the upcoming game.
Bryant suffered a right hamstring injury against Chicago on November 27. Though he finished that Bears game after hurting himself on the opening kickoff, his kicking leg was in a questionable condition the following morning and remained that way throughout the week.
The Bucs signed kicker Todd France to the practice squad on Tuesday but remained hopeful that Bryant would recover in time to kick in Baton Rouge. When it didn't happen, France was brought up to the active roster on Saturday and put in charge of the kicking duties on Sunday.
The week of rest surely helped Bryant, but it's not yet certain whether it was enough to get him back in action this Sunday in Charlotte. Gruden referred to Bryant as "questionable" for the game on Monday, though the official injury report won't come out until Wednesday. It would be difficult for Gruden to get much more specific this far before the game, as Bryant's injury is of they type that can be unpredictable.
"I've never really been comfortable with hamstrings to even comment," said Gruden, who saw his starting free safety, Dexter Jackson, miss a five-week period due to his own hamstring ailment. "Every one of them is different, especially when you are talking about your kicker. So, we'll keep Todd France on the roster and we feel very, very comfortable with him going into Carolina."
The Bucs might be more comfortable with their roster health overall as they prepare for their rematch with the Panthers. Against the Saints on Sunday, the team was without Bryant, seven-game safety starter Will Allen (knee) and linebacker Marquis Cooper (chest), a second-year special teams standout. While Bryant's status is a question mark, Allen and Cooper look like good bets to return against the Panthers. And defensive end Dewayne White, who suffered a hamstring injury in practice last week, was able to play against the Saints and is likely to be probable for the Carolina game.
The only new injury that Gruden reported from Sunday's game in Baton Rouge was a right ankle sprain incurred by starting right guard Sean Mahan. The injury is not expected to keep Mahan out of action next Sunday.