RB Michael Pittman has seven touchdowns in seven games this season
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers were happy, to be sure, when Michael Pittman returned in Week Four after serving a three-game suspension, if for no other reason than they had just lost starting back Charlie Garner for the season in Game Three. Still, the Bucs probably didn't expect Pittman to have 565 rushing yards, 711 combined yards and seven touchdowns just seven games later.
Pittman's entire 2004 season has been about exceeding expectations.
The Buccaneers haven't had a particularly strong rushing attack since the 2000 season, and they haven't had a 1,000-yard rusher since Warrick Dunn got into four digits that year. Even though he missed those first three games, Pittman is on pace for 1,049 yards, if one divides his rushing total by his seven games played and projects them over a 13-game season.
By rushing for over 100 yards in three of the Bucs' last four games, Pittman also matched a feat not accomplished since Dunn's strong 2000 season. Dunn got over the century mark in three games over a four-week span in late November and December 2000 en route to 1,133 yards.
Again, this isn't exactly what the Buccaneers were expecting from Pittman when the season began. With Garner on board, Head Coach Jon Gruden thought he could use the two tailbacks in the backfield together, with either one a threat to either shift to a receiving slot or go out into a pass pattern from the backfield. Even as the primary starter for all of 2002 and about 75% of 2003, had back-to-back 700-yard seasons, but he caught 59 passes in '02 and 75 last year. It was clear what Pittman's strength was in the Buccaneers' offense.
Now it's not quite as clear, and that's a pleasant surprise. Pittman didn't officially catch a pass in Sunday's blowout win over San Francisco (he had one reception erased by a penalty) but he ran 21 times for 106 yards and two touchdowns. Virtually all of the Bucs' opening-day offensive plans have been altered during a season racked by injuries and other developments, and only through unexpected contributions from players like Pittman, quarterback Brian Griese and wide receiver Michael Clayton have the Bucs stayed afloat.
"We expected [Keenan] McCardell to be a big part of our attack and we expected Garner and Pittman to share the ball a little bit," said Gruden. "But a lot has changed since opening day."
Perhaps even the league-wide book on Pittman, who runs with a churning style but has shown the speed to both get around the corner and run past defenders in the second level of the defense. If he does get to 1,000 yards, it will be his first such season. It will probably also mean that the Bucs' resurgent offense stays strong down the stretch; this newfound running success is helping Griese and the passing attack, and vice versa. In addition, Pittman is moving the chains with a lot of five and 10-yard runs, and that sustains drives and allows more players to eventually become involved.
For instance, the Bucs might have been thinking about sitting on a 14-0 halftime lead when they handed the ball to Pittman on second-and-10 from their own 33 with 44 seconds to play in the second quarter Sunday. However, when Pittman bashed over right tackle for eight yards, Griese called a timeout, converted the third-and-two and threw a 42-yard touchdown pass to Joe Jurevicius seconds later.
"He's rushing for big yards right now and he's making some tough first downs for us," said Gruden. "He's a good football player and hopefully the best is yet to come."
There is reason to believe that Pittman can at least maintain his current success. An unintended but nevertheless welcome side effect of his suspension is that he's a bit fresher now than many running backs around the league. He is, as always, in phenomenal shape, and he's only missed one game due to injury in the last four seasons. And the Buccaneers' offensive line, another work in progress seems to be jelling late in the season, much as it did in 2002.
"The whole offensive line did an excellent job," said Pittman after Sunday's game. "We accomplished what we wanted to do, and that was run the ball, sustain drives, and just move the ball. I think that we did that. The offensive line blocked great."
In addition, Pittman is making himself a more valuable part of the offense every week. He can stay on the field for virtually every down, thanks to his pass-catching skills, and he's proving to be an asset even when he's not taking a handoff or going out into a route.
"I can't say enough about him," said Gruden. "He had an unbelievable block. We actually had a protection breakdown on a big third down conversion to Clayton. He blocked [John] Engelberger, who's a very good defensive end, by himself. This is one great pass-protecting back."
Gruden has praised Pittman before, of course, often calling him a great pass-catching back. The way his 2004 season is going, however, Pittman might soon just be called a great back. Period.