The Bucs running game has bogged down the last two weeks
At the same time that the Buccaneers' offensive concerns have shifted from the passing game to the running game, the team's injury situation is going in the opposite direction. Thus, Tampa Bay has varying offensive worries heading into its Sunday showdown with the Green Bay Packers.
Head Coach Tony Dungy addressed the suddenly-struggling running game on Monday afternoon, a day after his team had rushed for just 34 yards in a loss at Oakland. "The running game is the most critical (issue) to me," said Dungy. "It has been two weeks in a row that we really haven't gotten our backs back to the line of scrimmage. We're going to have to get that corrected, because if we make it to the playoffs, we won't go very far if we're not able to run the ball better. That's something that we have to get going in practice."
Dungy might settle for his running backs going at all in practice. For the past few weeks, the team's vaunted backfield of RB Warrick Dunn and FB Mike Alstott has done more watching during the week than they have running, the result of various injuries. Dunn has been struggling with a left ankle sprain that kept him out of the December 6 Monday night win over Minnesota but hasn't really slowed him in the last two games. Though Dunn appeared to re-injure that ankle in the third quarter at Oakland, he was able to return to the game and was not mentioned by Dungy on Monday.
Alstott also practiced little after suffering a neck strain while lifting waits last Wednesday morning. He has recovered from that injury and is not expected to appear on the injury report.
Two players that are likely to show up on Wednesday's official report are receivers Reidel Anthony and Karl Williams. Anthony sustained a sprained ankle against the Raiders and Williams incurred a thigh bruise; Dungy described Williams' injury as more troublesome. The Bucs' five-man receiving corps has suffered a string of nicks in the season's late going, as Jacquez Green has been playing through a sprained foot and Bert Emanuel had a back injury last week that kept him out of one practice.
Still, Dungy is not overly concerned about the news from the injury front. "It's really not a whole lot of bad ones," he said. "Marcus Jones and Reidel Anthony have sprained ankles and we'll have to see how those guys go as the week goes on. Karl Williams and Ronde Barber got thigh bruises and those might be bothersome. Other than that, it was just the minor things that happen in games. Those four guys are the ones we're going to look at."
They'll also be looking at the ground game, as Tampa Bay has dropped from a peak of fifth in the NFL in rushing six weeks ago to its current spot at number 17. That is largely the result of the last two Sundays, when they have combined for only 75 rushing yards in two games while running just 19 times in each contest. Those are numbers completely foreign to the Buccaneers, who had reached triple digits in team rushing in nine of their first 12 games and had averaged over 32 carries per game before the recent swoon.
"We just have to work on our fundamentals, work our drills," said Dungy. "We need to have a mindset that we're going to run the ball."
The Bucs usually manage to maintain that mindset against the Packers. Even though Tampa Bay came up short in the last 'Battle of the Bays', a 26-23 thriller at Lambeau Field on October 10, the Bucs rushed for 173 yards on 32 carries, averaging 5.4 yards a pop. In the Packers' last trip to Raymond James Stadium, a 24-22 Bucs win on December 7 of last year, Tampa Bay managed 105 rushing yards.
Not that Dungy expects the Packers to make it easy on his squad. Green Bay is currently in a multi-team fight for a Wild Card spot and could leap back into the division title race with a win over the Buccaneers. "Green Bay is going to be a very tough game for us," said Dungy. "They're playing better offensively, and they put up a lot of points on us the first time up there. It looks like Brett (Favre) is healthier with that thumb, so we're going to have a challenge. Defensively, we've got to play them a lot better than we played yesterday (in Oakland).
"They know what it is to reach down and get that extra effort."