RB Cadillac Williams looked sharper on his cuts Thursday than he has in awhile, according to Head Coach Jon Gruden
At some point during the two weeks between the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' games against Miami and San Francisco, rookie running back Cadillac Williams was cleared by the training staff to start practicing.
In the days leading up to that 49ers contest, Williams tested out his sprained left foot on the practice field and passed every test. And on Sunday, Williams suited up and saw his first game action in four weeks, rushing 13 times for 20 yards against the 49ers.
But it wasn't until Thursday afternoon that, in Head Coach Jon Gruden's mind, the Bucs' Cadillac was back. Really back.
Williams, who has been hobbled by that foot injury for roughly a month, might finally be returning to the form that allowed him to run for an NFL-record 434 yards in his first three career games. The evidence was a strong practice on Thursday in which the usually shifty back appeared to have his repertoire of moves back.
Was it really that big of a difference, Williams' appearance on the practice field Thursday as compared to Wednesday, or especially last week?
"To me it was totally different, yes," said Gruden emphatically.
Gruden fields questions about the team at the end of every practice, and on Thursday he rolled through such topics as Derrick Brooks' health, the offensive line and special teams issues, as asked by the media. But he offered the update on Williams unbidden, a several-steps-removed flow from an innocent question about Friday's Bruce Springsteen concert in Tampa.
Gruden hadn't been aware that the boss was in town, but the news made him wonder if he could get Springsteen out to One Buccaneer Place to sing "Cadillac Ranch." Such was Gruden's delight over how well his rookie runner had practiced.
"I'll say this about Carnell Williams: He was back today," said Gruden. "That was probably the most exciting thing that happened to me this week and in the last couple weeks – Carnell Williams had a great day today. He made some great cuts, maybe because the Boss is in town, I don't know."
Gruden knows how important it is that the Bucs get a respectable running game established on Sunday, even against the NFL's second-ranked rush defense. Williams is certainly rested, after sitting out most of three games and running the ball just 24 times over the last five weeks; if he's also more confident in his cuts on that left foot it will be a boon to the Bucs' ground game.
"We've got to be balanced on offense," said Gruden. "We've got to find some way to run the football again. And we can't turn the ball over and have multiple sacks. So Chris Simms has to play much better and certainly our ability to run the ball offensively is critical."
More good news for the Bucs' rushing attack: Michael Pittman returned to practice on Thursday. Pittman is dealing with a shoulder injury, which is obviously quite significant for a running back, but he endured the same issue to play against Miami three weeks ago, rushing for 127 yards and a touchdown. Pittman sat out Wednesday's practice and is listed as questionable on the depth chart. He was not upgraded Thursday, but Gruden appeared optimistic that the team's other starting back, in effect, would be available.
"He returned today; I think he's going to be fine," said Gruden. "I'm optimistic. Talking to Mike he's confident that he'll play but we have to legally put him on the injury list and we'll do so as questionable."
That's not all. Starting center John Wade, who also sat out Wednesday's practice, was back in action on Thursday. Wade has been probable on the injury report all along, but he is dealing with a mild ankle injury.
Wade is one of the team's tougher guys; his return from a nearly catastrophic knee injury over the past offseason proved that. He's not the only guy playing with some bumps and bruises, though. The completely healthy NFL player is the exception at this time of the year. That's why the practice-field efforts of men such as Williams, Pittman and Wade was encouraging for Gruden on Thursday.
"Guys are working very hard, we had a very good practice today," he said. "That's a start. So I'll leave it at that. We've got a lot of young guys who are playing hard. A couple guys are playing with their nicks and knacks like most guys do this time of year but they're giving it everything they have and I'm proud of that."
Rookie fullback Rick Razzano has been involved in more than his share of roster moves over the last month, but he's still around and that's the way the team wants it.
On Thursday, Razzano was back on the practice field, having been re-signed to the practice squad. Razzano was released from the active roster on Wednesday to make room for new linebacker Wesly Mallard but was back Thursday after clearing waivers.
"He's a guy who will continue to work and hopefully make the team someday," said Gruden.
Razzano has spent about half the season on the active roster. He made the team out of training camp and was inactive for the season opener, then spent four weeks on a reserve list while serving a commissioner's suspension. He returned to the active roster and played against Miami, then was released on October 18 when the team traded for San Francisco quarterback Tim Rattay.
When quarterback Brian Griese went on injured reserve two days later, Razzano was brought back. He was on the 53-man roster but inactive for Sunday's game in San Francisco.
Eleven of the Bucs' 12 draft picks in 2005 have appeared on the active roster at some point, all but seventh-round safety Hamza Abdullah. Coincidentally, it was Abdullah's spot on the practice squad that Razzano filled on Thursday. Abdullah was signed to the Denver Broncos' active roster this week.
Bucs-Panthers games are usually tight, which means the field position battle is likely to be critical. The final outcome could easily turn on a special teams play or two. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, Carolina brings a very strong return game to Tampa.
The Panthers have been particularly strong on punt returns, ranking fifth in the NFL with a 10.0-yard average on 20 returns. The same qualities that make Steve Smith such a threat as a receiver are worrisome in the return game, and Smith has handled 14 of those 20 returns so far. He has yet to really break one, averaging 6.5 yards per return with a long of 21, but the danger is obviously are.
Second-year cornerback Chris Gamble has also been used in that capacity, to great effect. Gamble has averaged 18.2 yards on six returns, with a long of 76. Both players have caught the attention of the Buccaneers, who rank 24th in the league against punt returns.
Gruden said he has no plans to change personnel on the coverage units, but there might be some alterations made to the overall special teams makeup.
"We might shuffle some guys in positions," he said. "We might not necessarily use new people, but we might shuffle the deck a little bit because the nature of this beast coming in here Sunday. These guys are very good in the return game. Their punt return game is extraordinary. They've got two guys who are more than dangerous and we might shuffle the deck a little bit to try to help our coverage units. Personnel changes aren't necessarily in order."