Yes, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to get their running game on track. And yes, they want to find some answers for their defense of the run.
However, those are essentially secondary goals. The primary objective, of course, is to win Sunday's game against the St. Louis Rams. Whether that necessitates winning the battle on the ground remains to be seen.
"For us, it's all about wins," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You've got to do whatever it takes to go out and win a football game. Those phases of our game have to improve and we found ways to improve them this week. Hopefully they will show up today and that will help us."
Actually, it's a fair bet that run defense will be critical to the outcome at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday, especially with RB Steven Jackson in town. As dangerous as Drew Brees and the New Orleans passing attack is, last week's game against the Saints spun out of control when the visitors were able to establish their rushing attack early. The Bucs have won one game this season (at Cincinnati) in which their opponent had an individual rush for over 100 yards, but overall they are 4-16 in that situation over the past five years.
Jackson comes in with a two-game streak of surpassing the century mark, with his 109 yards last week helping the Rams upend the San Diego Chargers.
"Steven Jackson's one of those guys that can carry the load for his football team," said Morris. "He does a great job of protecting his young quarterback. Another guy who can spell him is a guy we know well, Ken Darby. That's going to be their mentality, to run the football. Unless we can get those guys on the ground, we can expect to see a lot of their running game."
What's at stake for the Bucs' defense is clear. If Jackson can be slowed, more of the responsibility for moving the Rams down the field will fall on the shoulders of rookie quarterback Sam Bradford. Bradford, the first overall pick in the 2010 draft and a starter since Week One, has been impressive, especially of late. However, young quarterbacks, in general, are more prone to mistakes. The Buccaneers would like to put Bradford into position to make more mistakes, and thereby slow the rise of a young Rams team.
"They're a very similar team to us," said Morris. "They're a young team with a young quarterback. We're both ascending teams getting better with young talent all around. It's very similar across the board so it should be a great matchup. Another big challenge for us."
The Bucs' own young quarterback, second-year man Josh Freeman, has played well enough that the Bucs have already won three games despite not yet getting the expected results in the rushing game. For the long run, though, the Buccaneers do want to be a team that relies on a consistent and powerful rushing attack.
If that is to start today, it will require the help of some new faces. Three key figures in the Bucs' rushing efforts will be sitting out today's game due to injury: C Jeff Faine (quad), G Keydrick Vincent (back) and fullback Earnest Graham (hamstring). Jeremy Zuttah will once again fill in for Faine at center, and he has done well in that role over the last game and a half. The solutions for the missing Vincent and Graham, however, will be new ones.
Rookie Ted Larsen, who the Bucs claimed off waivers from the New England Patriots prior to opening weekend, will step in for Vincent at left guard, seeing his first NFL action. The Bucs also signed rookie Derek Hardman from the practice squad on Saturday in order to provide depth for that banged-up front line. Davin Joseph will start at right guard despite being questionable for the game with a knee injury.
"We look forward to seeing Davin being out there," said Morris. "Keydrick Vincent will miss this week. We'll replace him with Ted Larsen, a young man who's been here for awhile working with us. We'll get him out there and see what he can do. We'll see if he can play fast for us, along with Zuttah and Joseph in there."
At fullback, rookie Erik Lorig will make his first NFL start, and the Bucs may also use second-year back Kregg Lumpkin in a Graham-like RB/FB role. Lorig was a defensive end when the Bucs drafted him in April but has since converted to offense; Lumpkin has played in two games this season but has yet to log a carry.
Helping starter Cadillac Williams carry the actual rushing load will be rookie LeGarrette Blount, who will be active for the third time this season. Lorig, Lumpkin and Blount have different strengths, and will be asked to different things today, but all in a way are helping to replace Graham.
"We won't have Earnest today and that's a big loss for us," said Morris. "But we do have Erik Lorig, who will fill in as a fullback role. Also, the guy who can carry the ball a little bit for it like Earnest is able to do for us is Kregg Lumpkin. And we also have LeGarrette Blount – those two guys will be up for us along with Cadillac to help them get some things going in our run game. We look forward to watching these young, ascending players try to help us and improve our team.
The Bucs got a look at what Blount could do in a successful cameo against Pittsburgh in Week Three, but the team has been hesitant to rely too much on either him or Blount until they had a more solid grasp on the protection scheme. Williams is excellent at keeping blitzers off Freeman; Blount and Lumpkin will need to be just as good.
"Obviously protection is a big issue for us," said Morris. "We do want to pass, and it's all about protecting your quarterback. You've got to be able to do that when you get on the grass. All these guys have worked really hard at it and we're fired up to see some of these young guys go out there and help us. They've learned fast, and our coaches have done a great job of teaching them."
In addition to Faine, Vincent and Graham, the Bucs will also be without CB Elbert Mack (heel) and DT Brian Price (pelvis). Those five plus TE Jerramy Stevens, DE Alex Magee and designated third quarterback Rudy Carpenter have been declared inactive.
The Rams come in relatively healthy and will require no lineup changes today. Their eight inactive players are S Darian Stewart, CB Justin King, TE Fendi Onobun, LB Curtis Johnson, T Renardo Foster, WR Mardy Gilyard, DE Eugene Sims and DT Clifton Ryan. King, Gilyard and Ryan were out due to injury.
The Bucs, eager to stop a two-game losing streak at home, took their Friday practice to the stadium to get an early taste of the atmosphere. Morris thinks his young squad is primed for a much better home performance than it offered last weekend.
"You watch the [Saints] game and you can definitely get better from it," he said. "It's a lesson learned. We tried to do too much last week versus a very talented football team and we weren't ready to do that as a team. We learned from that. We'll come out this week and maybe cut some things back, play a little faster, get our guys some more knowledge. Then we'll let them go play, and play fast. That's something we have to learn from as coaches and as players, and now we'll go out this week and try to attack this team."
The Bucs and Rams kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.