Head Coach Jon Gruden doesn't believe there is any divisiveness between the Bucs' offense and defense
The stat sheet will show only two runs for six yards and one catch for another six yards for Mike Alstott, but there was at least one stretch of Sunday's game on which the Pro Bowl fullback had an enormous impact.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers faced a third-and-four just shy of midfield, trailing Seattle by a touchdown halfway through the fourth quarter. Alstott lined up as a blocker in front of running back Charlie Garner, then slipped out of the backfield and towards the right sideline after the snap. Quarterback Chris Simms faked a handoff to Garner and fired a hard pass to Alstott that just slipped past safety Ken Hamlin's hands.
First down, and the drive still alive. On the next play, Alstott got his second carry of the afternoon and got around right end for a pickup of five. And on the next snap, the ninth-year veteran picked up a blitzer on the edge of the pocket, giving Simms time to throw a 35-yard pass down the middle of the field to Charles Lee. Simms appeared ready to scramble forward when he spied the pass-rusher, but stopped and calmly delivered the pass after seeing Alstott throw the block.
It was a very good series for Alstott on a day in which the Buccaneers' running game started to emerge.
Charlie Garner rebounded from a sluggish opener in Washington to rip off 75 yards on just 13 carries. Garner also caught six passes for 24 yards. Jamel White got a few carries while spelling Garner but was caught in the backfield several times and lost five yards.
The Bucs produced 92 yards on 24 carries, an average outcome that looks better in comparison to the 30-yard effort on opening day. Still, as impressive as Alstott and Garner were in select moments, the ground game is still a work in progress as the Bucs sort out their personnel and await the game-four return of versatile back Michael Pittman.
For instance, Gruden was asked if he felt in retrospect that he could have put the ball in Garner's hands a few more times, given the back's 5.8 yards-per-carry average. That notion ignores the flow of the game and the demands of the clock, of course, but it also speaks to how the team wants to utilize Garner's talents to the best effect throughout the season.
"The thing is when Charlie comes out of games, at times he gets tired," said Gruden. "We are using him as a receiver. He is not a 225 or 240-pound back. There is no question we would like to get him the ball as many times as we can. When you look back on it, there are a couple of plays where maybe we should have given it to him again. However, when you look at the outcome of a lot of these plays on the coaches' tapes, we had opportunities to convert and make some things happen. Unfortunately, it didn't work out again yesterday."
As for Alstott, he has not yet figured into the running game much outside of short-yardage situations. Given his long and successful history with the team, and his efforts to return from a frightening neck injury, Alstott's every game is sure to be scrutinized. Gruden envisions the fullback's role growing as the season progresses and the Bucs manage to get a lead on the scoreboard from time to time.
"We think that there is going to be a more comprehensive role for him in our offense as a ball carrier," said the coach. "He is a fullback here. He is a guy that we look to in goal-line and short-yardage situations. He is a guy that sees a lot of his touches when you have a lead and you are protecting the ball and chewing the clock. Those situations haven't arisen. We are going to try. He is not your typical halfback. He is an anvil. We have to utilize his strength and we'll do all we can to do that."
For now, the Bucs are looking at everybody on the depth chart in search of the right mix for an offense that has yet to find its identity. Whether that means a bigger role for Alstott, more touches for Garner, a boost from Pittman in a few weeks or some other solution, the Bucs are determined to create a balanced offense that can produce on the ground.
"We'll look at the running backs and the tight ends again as a staff throughout the day, and try to circulate the roster the best we can with the players we think give us the best chance in Oakland," said Gruden."
After two weeks, Tampa Bay's offense ranks 30th in the NFL while its defense stands third.
That's not a particularly new situation in Tampa, where the defense is working on its eighth straight top-10 finish on defense while the offense has never ranked higher than 10th in 28 previous seasons. Of course, historical similarities make the situation no less frustrating.
What will not occur, however, is a rift between the two squads in the Buccaneers' locker room. Gruden believes the team's leadership is too strong to allow such divisiveness to occur, starting in his office.
"I'm not going to have a split team; an offensive bus and a defensive bus," he said. "Monte Kiffin won't allow that; I won't allow that; our players won't let that happen. If we have to, I'll put a couple defensive players on offense this week. To spread some of the spark around, I'll do that. We have a hell of a football team. They're playing hard, but we're just not getting it done right now offensively. It's a play here, it's a play there and we're not that far away but I'm confident that we can stay together."
Alive and Kicking
Heading into the regular season, one potential worry was the kicking of Martin Gramatica, who missed four field goals during the preseason.
Funny what a difference two weeks make. The team's offensive struggles are now foremost on everyone's minds and Gramatica's work has turned into a strong point for the team. The sixth-year kicker has made all three of his tries so far this season, supplying 10 of the 16 points the team has scored. He has also had good distance on his kickoffs, driving several into the end zone and generally getting the ball down to the five or better.
Gramatica's strong start has validated his coach's approach. Toward the end of the preseason, Gruden chose to take a completely positive stance on the issue and state his complete confidence in his kicker. That may have helped Gramatica, who admitted around the same time that his struggles were at least partially mental.
"I think he is kicking the ball well," said Gruden. "I would like to see him kick fewer field goals and more extra points. But yes, he is kicking the ball well. He had a flu the night before the [Seattle] game, so that's a credit to him. He wasn't feeling 100 percent yesterday. The kickoffs were good and I think he is right on schedule."