The Buccaneers will honor former great Mike Alstott in a variety of ways during Sunday night's game
Earnest Graham will start today's game at fullback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Considering he started Tampa Bay's first six games of 2008 at tailback, that is a remarkable turn of events, and not one that would be duplicated by many running backs in the NFL.
With B.J. Askew out with a hamstring injury, Graham voluntarily moved to fullback last weekend when Byron Storer suffered a season-ending knee injury against Carolina. As it turned out, Graham was not only willing but also extremely able, giving the Bucs the best play they had seen at fullback in some time. Graham's lead blocking helped Warrick Dunn gain 115 rushing yards on 22 carries and aided the Bucs in dominating the Panthers, 27-3.
In the week since that performance, the Bucs signed fullback Jameel Cook, who played the 2001-05 seasons in Tampa. Cook will see action in today's game at that position, but Graham will get the start, with Dunn opening the game at tailback. Expect both Graham and Dunn to get a significant amount of carries in today's game.
"What Earnest did last week was amazing," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "That guys is amazing. He comes out of nowhere last year, comes in and dominates at tailback. Now, all of a sudden we're without both of our fullbacks, and we're a two-back team. So Earnest steps in there, too, and dominates again.
"Look at the production we got. He wasn't just in there – he was on it. The whole team took notice. You hear a lot about selfishness in our league, but unselfishness like that doesn't get talked about enough."
Graham said the Carolina game was the most fun he had in a long time, and he clearly relished the opportunity to serve as a blocker. But the Bucs aren't about to take their most productive offensive player and keep the ball away from him all day.
"We'll play him some at fullback and some at halfback," said Gruden. "We're excited about what we can do with Warrick and Earnest out there on the field together."
No matter what happens with Graham's new role, it will be a night for fullbacks. The Buccaneers will honor former great Mike Alstott throughout the game, including a halftime ceremony.
Elsewhere on offense, wide receiver Antonio Bryant will once again move from flanker to the starting split end spot, with Michael Clayton starting at flanker. Joey Galloway will be inactive for the fifth straight game due to a foot injury, though he appears to be nearing a return.
The Bucs will still have five receivers active for the game, however, because they promoted Brian Clark from the practice squad on Saturday. Clark will be one of the 45 active players tonight. LB Matt McCoy was released to make room for Clark on the roster.
QB Jeff Garcia will get his second straight start and his third of the season. After returning last week from a month as the backup to Brian Griese, Garcia completed 75% of his passes against Carolina and looked much more comfortable in the pocket than he had during the season opener at New Orleans.
"Jeff's game is very creative," said Gruden. "Timing and rhythm are big parts of what he does, and being able to make plays on the move is a big part of his game, too. The Jeff Garcia that started the season wasn't the Jeff Garcia that we know around here. I'm happy that he's back to being fully healthy. The velocity is there, the range is there, the pocket mobility is there. I think he's 100%."
In addition to the lineup changes, the Buccaneers also named eight players inactive for Sunday night's game: Galloway, Askew, Griese, T Anthony Davis, T James Lee, WR Maurice Stovall, DT Greg Peterson and designated third quarterback Josh Johnson. Galloway, Askew, Griese and Stovall were all out due to injuries.
The Seahawks will be without their starting quarterback, as expected. Matt Hasselbeck was ruled out earlier in the week and will be replaced by sixth-year man Seneca Wallace. Wallace was a question mark during the week due to a calf strain but has been cleared to play. On the other hand, one of his starting receivers, Deion Branch, will not be able to play due to a foot ailment. Bobby Engram will get the start in Branch's absence.
The Seahawks deactivated the following eight men: Branch, Hasselbeck, K Brandon Coutu, CB Kevin Hobbs, G Mansfield Wrotto, TE Will Heller, DE Baraka Atkins and DT Howard Green. Branch, Hasselbeck and Heller were out due to injuries. Hasselbeck is not a designated third quarterback; he will not play in the game under any circumstances.
The Buccaneers and Seahawks will begin playing in front of a national audience at 8:15 p.m. ET. You'll find the NFL.com Game Center, complete with live play-by-play and statistical updates, at this location once the game has begun. On the Buccaneers.com home page, we'll post a review of all the action at halftime and an extensive game story, with links for stats, photos, scoring information and more, shortly after the final whistle.