C Jeff Faine and the Bucs' offensive line is looking forward to its biggest challenge of the season so far
With an elite running back like Adrian Peterson powering the league's fifth-best ground attack, it's natural for discussion surrounding the Minnesota Vikings to focus on their potent rushing game.
But another facet of Minnesota's success, one that is often overlooked but arguably every bit as important, is the Vikings' ability to stop the run.
With a pair of Pro Bowl Williamses in the middle — defensive tackles Pat and Kevin — working in tandem with excellent ends Jared Allen and Ray Edwards, the Vikings fearsome front four has helped limit opponents to an average of just 70.1 rushing yards per game, the third-lowest total in the league.
For a Tampa Bay Buccaneers club that has seen its running game falter a bit in its last two games in Dallas and Kansas City, the road isn't about to get any easier with the Vikings coming to town.
"I think it all starts with the middle of their defense," Head Coach Jon Gruden said. "Kevin Williams and Pat Williams, I don't know that they're related, but they could be related. They're very big and very good. They make it very hard on you. They do a good job with their scheme. Their linebackers, you'll see, will be at or near the line of scrimmage snap after snap.
"They're just a hard group to block. They're very, very big and very athletic. I think they've got three or four Pro Bowlers in the mix and they rotate them. They've got some guys coming in off the bench that are impressive. Ellis Wyms is one of those guys. They just keep rolling fresh guys out there and good Lord, they're big and they're talented. I give them a lot of credit. They've got a nice scheme too."
The Bucs have averaged just 65 rushing yards per game in their last two contests after posting more than 130 yards per game through the first seven, but the offensive strategy won't change even with an extremely stingy run defense across the line.
"We're going to try to commit ourselves to running the ball," said Gruden. "We went to Chicago and saw a gap-oriented eight-man front and we had a hard time running it. We tried to run it, but we didn't make yards running it. We chose to try another route to get another first down and move the ball.
"It doesn't mean that the passes are going to be open just because [the Vikings] are in there stopping the run. [Antoine] Winfield, [Darren] Sharper, Madieu Williams, [Cedric] Griffin, they've got players [in the secondary] too. I saw Tennessee go to Chicago and have a hard time running it. You've got to find a way to win. You've got to find a way to get a yard, find a way to get a first down and eventually score. That's the nature of this league right now."
Gruden's desire to keep pounding the football extends to his offensive linemen, the group responsible for opening holes for the team's running backs. Center Jeff Faine, the man in the middle of the group, said the unit is taking the task upon themselves and looking forward to the challenge of re-establishing the Bucs' ground game against one of the league's best run defenses.
"I think any time we don't get our job done it's pretty hard to win the game, period," Faine said. "I think week-in and week-out, we have to get it done against whoever we play. The onus is definitely on us this week and we have to get it done to make some things happen up front.
"[We're] very anxious to get the running game going. It's something that our offense is able to be pretty balanced when we can get that done and it gives us the opportunity to spread the field a little bit and do some things in play action. It's very, very important to get the running game going."
Running back Cadillac Williams' return to the active roster Wednesday was the most exciting news the Bucs received on the injury front, but there are still a handful of injured players seeking to return after the bye week and get back to health.
While Williams took about 30 snaps in Wednesday's practice as he simulated Peterson, the Bucs' own starting back was unable to go.
Gruden said that Earnest Graham, along with tight end Alex Smith, did not participate in the afternoon session.
"Didn't practice entirely, it was Alex Smith and Earnest Graham," Gruden said. "We had some guys that were out there practicing a little bit, but those were the two that didn't practice at all."
The Bucs who were limited in action Wednesday were linebacker Derrick Brooks (knee), quarterback Brian Griese (right elbow) and defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson (illness).
While Graham was a non-participant, some of his backfield mates may be getting closer than ever to full strength. Both fullback B.J. Askew (hamstring) and Warrick Dunn (back) were listed as full participants. "I hope he will be ready to play Sunday," Gruden said of Askew. "He practiced Monday, he returned today and we'll see how he feels tomorrow."
As for Dunn, Gruden seemed especially upbeat about his chances to play against the Vikings.
"I'm more and more confident, yes," Gruden said. "This is a special guy that wanted to play in Kansas City and demanded to play and wasn't happy about not playing, but I believe we did the right thing and hopefully he's ready to go. He's a special guy and we need him in this game."
Wide receiver Ike Hilliard (shoulder) was also listed as a full participant Wednesday.
"He's going to play, knowing Ike," Gruden said. "He's special. He is really special. I wish he felt better all the time, but that guy is unbelievable. He'll find a way to play in my opinion, but we'll see."
Finally, safety Jermaine Phillips was the only other player not to practice as he continues to rehab his fractured forearm, but a return in the near future seems to be in the cards for Phillips.
"He's progressing good," Gruden said. "I don't know that he'll be ready this week, but maybe we have a chance here in the next game or two to get him back. This hurts him not playing. I really feel bad for him. He was playing really good football for us."
As for the Vikings, only two players appeared on Wednesday's injury report. Defensive end Jared Allen and safety Madieu Williams were both listed with shoulder ailments and both players were limited in practice.
As many of the Bucs continued to heal up from nagging injuries, one was lost for the remainder of the year.
The team announced Wednesday that wide receiver Maurice Stovall, who had been battling a hamstring injury, was placed on injured reserve.
"Well, it's unfortunate," Gruden said. "We had high aspirations for him this season. Our receiving corps has changed dramatically since the last day of training camp. Thankfully Antonio [Bryant] has come through, [Michael] Clayton is really playing well, Ike has been real solid. Thankfully we got Joey [Galloway] back; hopefully we can find more things for him to do. It's been unfortunate."
Before his injury, Stovall had played in five games in 2008, catching three passes for 25 yards and tallying seven kick coverage stops. He was considered one of the Bucs' best special teams players.
The team also announced that it had signed wide receiver Brian Clark from the practice squad to fill Stovall's spot on the active roster. Clark spent six weeks in 2007 on the Bucs' practice squad before getting called up to the active roster for the final two regular season games and the team's playoff contest against the New York Giants.
Clark also spent the first six weeks of 2008 on the practice squad before joining the active roster for three games, catching one pass for 12 yards and making two special teams tackles, before being released Monday and re-signed to the practice squad yet again.
In order to fill Clark's place on the practice squad, the team announced the signing of linebacker Marc Magro. Magro joined the Rams in May as an undrafted free agent and was later signed to St. Louis' practice squad. Magro was also briefly on Miami's practice squad this season before coming to Tampa.
A product of West Virginia University, Magro played in 50 career games with 14 starts, tallying 195 tackles and 11.0 sacks and tied for the team lead in sacks with 7.0 in his senior season in 2007.