FB Jameel Cook played about 30 snaps on offense in his first game back last Sunday and might be even busier in Dallas
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who rank eighth in the NFL in rushing yards per game, clearly have a two-headed backfield attack. Earnest Graham leads the way with 456 yards but Warrick Dunn is right behind with 423, and both men are averaging 4.8 yards per carry.
However, keeping the Buccaneers' ground game in top gear is more than just a two-part equation. There are offensive linemen and other blockers critical to the success of each running play, of course, but there is also a variety of backfield packages the Bucs like to use to help Graham and Dunn produce.
Tampa Bay sometimes puts one or the other behind the quarterback in a one-back set. Obviously, both Graham and Dunn have often run behind a traditional fullback, like B.J. Askew or Byron Storer. And there are also occasions when the two runners are on the field together, in an alignment the Bucs like to refer to as their "Rocket" backfield.
As well as all of those options have worked through the first seven games — Tampa Bay is averaging 130.4 rushing yards per game, which would be its fourth-highest mark ever if maintained — the Bucs are starting to run into a problem. That problem, not surprisingly, is injuries.
"We're limited," said Head Coach Jon Gruden after the Bucs' practice on Thursday. "We might be in trouble. 'Trouble' might not be a good word but we might have to use a different form of attack. Unfortunately, a lot of our receivers are hurt, so being in three and four and five wides is also a question right now. But we'll have 11, we will have 11."
The trouble began at fullback, with starter B.J. Askew suffering a hamstring injury in Week Three that has kept him out of the lineup ever since. It intensified early in Week Six when Byron Storer, Askew's replacement, went down with a season-ending knee injury.
The Bucs answered that dearth of fullbacks in two ways. First, Graham voluntarily took up the blocking mantle and even started at fullback in front of Dunn in last week's win over Seattle. Second, the team re-signed fullback Jameel Cook, a free agent who had played in Tampa from 2001-05.
Unfortunately, Dunn is now dealing with a back ailment and Cook is, of course, still in the early stages of his re-learning curve in the Buccaneers' system. As selfless as Graham has been in ceding the primary tailback job to Dunn in order to help the offense as a whole, the plan crumbles a bit if Dunn is unable to play, and the veteran back has been limited on the practice field both days so far this week.
That would be a shame, because even though the Graham-Dunn combination came about out of injury, it has very pleasantly unlocked some new options for the offense. Necessity has been the mother of invention in the Bucs' backfield, or in this case re-invention. The Bucs have used their Rocket backfield before, but now it's probably more effective because opponents don't know what to expect when Graham and Dunn are out there together.
"I really like having him [Graham] in there, because I think we've been labeled as a team that most generally breaks formation and throws it when we're in our two-halfback set," explained Gruden. "But not anymore, man. Those tendencies have been disbanded, or disarmed. We will run it. And he's not just going in there as a liability, now. He is a thick guy, he's got muscles on the back of his neck. Earnest Graham is a stud. He's a very good fullback, and he likes it in there, to be honest with you."
If Dunn is unavailable, one would expect the bulk of the carries to go back to Graham, and that would mean the team would need to rely on Cook even more for its two-back packages. Fortunately, Cook looked good in his first game back with the Buccaneers last weekend.
"He played a lot," said Gruden. "He did play a lot, and I thought that was one heck of a performance. He played about 16-18 snaps in the kicking game, on special teams, and he played 30 plays or so on offense. He'll be okay. He'll be the fullback and we'll lean on him. We think he's pretty good."
The Buccaneers could even activate tailback Cadillac Williams to the 53-man roster in time for Sunday's game, though it doesn't seem likely that they will. Williams just started practicing on Wednesday after more than a year of rehabbing his injured right knee, and the Bucs have a total of three weeks to observe him on the practice field before making a roster decision.
So far, Williams has looked promising in his early work.
"He did good," said Gruden of Williams' second practice. "He ran a lot of the service cards trying to emulate Marion Barber. He wears the same number. He ran with some authority in the hole and he's getting back, I think, into football, which is really exciting. We said that yesterday but he took another step forward today."
The Buccaneers will step up Williams' work next week by simulating the contact he will eventually have to absorb in a real game.
"Next week we'll have a couple of our young players, practice squad players, put pads on and we will have some live physical hits in the hole, blitz pick-ups, things of that nature," said Gruden. "We won't physically take him to the ground but we will try to simulate some things that do happen as a running back. That will be the next step of our program."
So Williams, while clearly nearing the end of what has been a very grueling process for him, remains something of a question mark. That is true, unfortunately, of the Buccaneers' entire backfield situation. The return of Askew would help, but the veteran fullback was held out of practice on Thursday after doing some light work on Wednesday. How Askew and Dunn fare between now and Sunday will help determine how the Bucs' will structure their rushing attack in Dallas, and just what schemes will even be available.
"We'd like [Graham] and Warrick to be the two-headed monster that we have," said Gruden. "At the same time, we need help right now."
Seeking Good Returns
The Buccaneers have acknowledged that they are currently considering new options in the kickoff and punt return games, given the occasional struggles of rookie wide receiver Dexter Jackson. Jackson fumbled on his only kickoff return against Seattle and gained a total of seven yards on three combined kick and punt runbacks.
That doesn't mean the team will definitely make a change, as Gruden said on Thursday that it remains possible Jackson will hold onto the job in the immediate future. Still, the team is giving several other men a chance to compete for that role. The issue became a little more complicated last weekend when the team's sure-handed fallback option, wide receiver Ike Hilliard, sustained a concussion on a hard hit by Seahawks linebacker LeRoy Hill.
"Well, you know with Ike's status, that was scratched," said Gruden. "Joey Galloway is a guy that we've been working back there for the last few weeks. Michael Bennett is a candidate, Earnest Graham a candidate. We've got a number of candidates."
Gruden didn't bring up the name himself but was asked if rookie running back Clifton Smith might be among those players being considered. During the preseason, Smith averaged 13.8 yards on four punt returns and 23.5 yards on two kickoff returns.
An undrafted free agent out of Fresno State, Smith is currently on the Buccaneers' practice squad, so getting him into the mix would require a couple roster moves, and Gruden made no indications along those lines.
"He's a guy that also, as you know, did it in the preseason," said Gruden. "There are a number of candidates. We're going to have a big special teams segment tomorrow and try to figure out which way we're going."
More from Coach Gruden
During his three seasons as the Philadelphia Eagles' offensive coordinator, Gruden enjoyed the team's rivalry with Dallas and the annual trips to the Cowboys' tradition-laden home, Texas Stadium.
Barring a playoff rematch, Sunday's game will be the Buccaneers' last visit to Texas Stadium, as Dallas will move into its new stadium in 2009. After practice on Thursday, Gruden touched on that topic and several others.
"I've got a lot of memories [of Texas Stadium, yeah," he said. "I've got a lot of great memories. The Philadelphia days, that was our big rivalry. If you grow up in the NFL, grow up a fan of football, how can you not just sit back and say, 'Man, this is Texas Stadium,' every time you're in there? Bob Hayes and Tom Landry, now Jerry Jones and Jimmy Johnson, the great days that they've had. So it will be a special trip; it always is when you get a chance to play there. A lot of tradition."
On the Bucs briefly using the Wildcat backfield formation against Seattle: "We ran it last year in the preseason against Houston with Luke McCown. We do have some plays that are in the playbook that we would like to get to. As everybody know, Warrick was a very good high school quarterback. It's a long season. We have a lot of plays. We tipped the iceberg last week."
On if a team really needs to run the ball against Dallas to succeed: "Oh, I don't know that. Steven Jackson got a big long run last week, but they also play the run pretty good. Philadelphia chose to throw it; Washington made their plays throwing the football. They're good against the pass and good against the run. I promise you we're going to see a great Dallas football team Sunday. We're going to need to do both. And in key situations and if you were to get a lead obviously, goal-line and short-yardage situations, you have to be able to run the football. We're going to do the best we can."
On the Bucs' next win making him the winningest coach in team history: "Again, I try not to think too much about those types of things. I feel like I have a great responsibility here. I'm very fortunate to have been surrounded by a lot of talented people, and I just want to win the next game. Whether it's 28 games or 33 games you've won in your career, it really doesn't matter. We need to win our sixth game. We need to win our sixth game bad, this year, because that gives us a chance to win seven. I can't say much more than that."
On having a team where the players genuinely like and support each other: "We had that last year. We had that last year — you covered the team. It's not all of a sudden just dropped in our hat. We have key veterans — I think it starts there — in every room. We talk about having a [Kevin] Carter, a [Ronde] Barber, a Warrick Dunn, a [Jeff] Garcia. You've got some veteran guys — Derrick Brooks — that set great examples. The Galloways and Hilliards. And we try to find guys that love football, that want to be part of a team. Not the Pro Bowl team necessarily, but a team. We've got great leadership on the coaching staff here — Monte Kiffin, Rich Bisaccia, Bill Muir. Our assistant coaches do a good job and our players have really worked hard and bought into that. And they're good guys. We've got a lot of good guys here. I'll give them credit."
On not hearing much about Jovan Haye and the Bucs' run defense: "Well, he and [Chris] Hovan have done a heck of a job. Kevin Carter, those guys up front have done a heck of a job. You haven't heard much about any of our players, and that's just the way it is, I guess. People have got to do their reporting and they've got to write their stories. But Jovan Haye is one of the leading effort players in the NFL. Whether or not he goes to the Pro Bowl or he's on the cover of a magazine tomorrow I don't know, but he is one of the top effort players in football and he's a great run defender and he's got some movement and can create some disruption in the passing downs. He's a very good football player."
On how quarterbacks like Jeff Garcia and Brad Johnson can remain in the league in their late 30s: "Well, you've got to be good. They're pretty good players. But I'll say this about both of them, and you do the research yourself: They take care of the ball. Those two guys take care of the ball, and they do it in a rare fashion. They don't come into a game and throw it into double coverage or make a decision that puts the offense at great risk. They take care of the ball, those two guys. That's the number-one reason, I think. Number two is they're very good players. Number three, they're great team guys. They're both proven winners. They've both gotten it done big time."
On Johnson getting the "Captain Checkdown" nickname: "He's had 4,000-yard seasons. He's wearing a Super Bowl ring. He threw for 280 yards in the Vet in the NFC Championship Game. I've seen him throw five touchdown passes in a game. Call him whatever you want, he's a hell of a player. He's a good player, a good player. A great guy, too. A winner."
On Brian Griese's status and if he is comfortable with Luke McCown as the number two quarterback: "I'm comfortable with Luke, if we go that way. Brian is coming back. He threw the ball a little bit better today. Again, he's another guy that's a work in progress. It's all up in the air right now. We'll have some tough decisions to make on the airplane to Dallas, unfortunately."