When the Tampa Bay Buccaneers piled up 407 yards on just 57 plays three weeks ago in the desert, beating the Arizona Cardinals 38-35 in the process, it marked the first time they had averaged over seven yards per play since Week 13 of the 2007 season.
They didn't have to wait nearly as long to do it again.
Amazingly, the Bucs' offense topped itself just two weeks later, getting 421 yards on 55 plays against the Carolina Panthers for an average of 7.7 per, it's highest mark in any game since the 2000 season. At no time from 1990-2009 did the Buccaneers ever have two games in the same season in which they averaged more than seven yards per play.
Center Jeff Faine was not a part of that first effort in Arizona, thanks to a quad injury, but he did help produce the big numbers against Carolina this past weekend. It was fun to watch the first time but even more enjoyable to be involved.
"To get in there and be a part of it, and to see these guys get downfield and make some yardage – especially seeing Cadillac get the long run – it's huge," said Faine. "It's huge to see these guys be able to control the game with a little bit of a ground game."
Like most offensive linemen, Faine gets particular enjoyment out of a powerful running game. The Buccaneers certainly had that last Sunday, gaining a season-high 186 yards on the ground and averaging 6.2 yards per carry. Jumbo back LeGarrette Blount did most of the work early, rushing 19 times for 91 yards and a touchdown, and veteran Cadillac Williams finished it off with a 45-yard touchdown drive.
As it had in Arizona, when the Bucs ran for 154 yards and 5.1 yards per tote, the running game established itself early and then opened up all kinds of other options on offense. Quarterback Josh Freeman completed 72% of his passes in Arizona and then 75% against the Panthers, taking just three sacks in the process. With both the Cardinals and Panthers more worried about Tampa Bay's rushing attacks than any of the Bucs' previous opponents, Freeman found extra time to operate by faking handoffs.
"There were some specific plays where we used the play-action to eat up some big yards and take advantage of the way the Panthers were playing," said Faine. "They were being very aggressive against the run because they had to, because we were being successful with the run. Hopefully we can get a good balance and keep that going."
Blount's emergence has obviously revived the Bucs' rushing attack, but just as important has been the play up front of some of Faine's linemates, especially the less heralded ones. Rookie Ted Larsen, for instance, has started the last four games at left guard and the Bucs have averaged 140 rushing yards per game and 5.2 yards per carry during that span. Tackle James Lee has also filled in nicely at right tackle and Jeremy Zuttah played very well while Faine was out. The line's veteran leader has noticed the strong play from the team's young linemen, whether he's been watching from the sideline or the middle of the action.
"These guys are playing beyond their years, and I think it comes from the top down," said Faine. "It comes from the coaching, and it trickles down through the leadership of this team. Rookies are playing like veterans, and it's important for them to keep doing that. That's what's been our success."
This weekend, the Bucs will face a stiff challenge in trying to maintain the high RPMs on their ground game. San Francisco ranks 10th in the NFL against the run, giving up just 100.7 yards per game. The 49ers are also sixth in the league in average yards per carry against, at 3.7. San Francisco is on a two-game winning streak and is still alive in the NFC West, and will obviously be geared up for a big game on Sunday.
"These guys play hard," said Faine. "That's one thing you can get quickly off the tape, that these guys play hard, play fast and always hustle. They're definitely going to get after it."
Black, Sims, Stroughter & Trueblood Questionable for Sunday
The Buccaneers released their final injury report on Friday, the first of the week that includes game-status designations. Of particular note are four players who will likely be game-day decisions: linebacker Quincy Black, defensive tackle Ryan Sims, wide receiver Sammie Stroughter and tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
All four were listed as questionable on Friday's report. Black is attempting to return from an ankle sprain that kept him out of last week's win over Carolina. Sims and Stroughter have both missed the last two games, the former with a knee injury and the latter with a foot ailment. Trueblood played in a reserve role last Sunday after missing the two previous games with a knee injury. Of those four, Trueblood was the only player to participate fully in practice on Friday; the other three were limited.
Defensive end Kyle Moore has already been ruled out for the 49er game thanks to the shoulder injury that has bothered him for much of the season and kept him off the field for two of the last five games. Fourth-year veteran Tim Crowder will make his second consecutive start at left end in Moore's place. Head Coach Raheem Morris also said on Thursday that rookie Dekoda Watson and veteran Adam Hayward would again split time at strongside linebacker if Black is unavailable.
The news is better on fullback Earnest Graham, tackle Jeremy Trueblood and tight end Kellen Winslow. All three are considered probable to play on Sunday. Graham will be returning after missing the Bucs' last two outings and three of the last four due to a hamstring strain. He will presumably resume his starting job at fullback, where rookie Erik Lorig has been filling in in recent weeks.
San Francisco's week-ending injury report will not be filed until later in the afternoon, after the Buccaneers have already left for the West Coast.
DT Okam Added to Practice Squad
The Buccaneers made a move on their practice squad this week, adding an experienced hand to the defensive line corps.
Joining that eight-man crew was third-year defensive tackle Frank Okam, who spent his first two-and-a-half NFL seasons with the Houston Texans. To make room for Okam on the practice squad, the Bucs released rookie offensive lineman John Malecki.
Okam originally entered the NFL as a fifth-round pick by the Houston Texans in the 2008 draft. He made the active roster in each of his first three seasons, seeing action in five games as a rookie, three more in 2009 and another five this season before his release on October 25. He has a total of five tackles on defense, including one this season.
After his release, Okam signed with the Seattle Seahawks on November 2 but did not appear in a game before his release last week.
A former teammate of Buccaneer defensive tackle Roy Miller at the University of Texas, the 6-5, 346-pound Okam is a massive run-plugger who also showed the ability to collapse the pocket during his collegiate career. He played in 50 games for the Longhorns, starting 39, and racked up 160 tackles, 10 sacks, 28 tackles for loss, 46 quarterback pressures and five fumble recoveries, one of which he returned for a touchdown. A member of UT's national championship team in 2005, Okam earned second-team all-conference honors from the Associated Press as a senior and was a regular member of the conference's all-academic teams.
Despite spending most of his first three seasons on an NFL active roster, Okam is still eligible for the practice squad because he has yet to appear on a team's 45-man game day active list eight or more times in a single season.
In addition to giving teams an opportunity to develop young talent, the practice squad can also make it easier to field a full crew for practice. Teams often tweak that eight-man unit during the season in response to shortages at certain positions caused by injuries on the 53-man roster.
The Buccaneers signed Malecki on October 26, when their injury report including two starting offensive linemen (Jeff Faine and Jeremy Trueblood) and one former starter who has since been released (Keydrick Vincent). Faine and Trueblood have since returned to action, but the Bucs are now dealing with injuries to defensive linemen Ryan Sims and Kyle Moore, as well as the move of rookie Brian Price to injured reserve.