RB Cadillac Williams has three 100-yard rushing games this year, and the Bucs won all three of those contests
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers banged their heads against a brick wall about 12 or 13 times, Jon Gruden estimates, before they finally decided there were better ways to gain yards on Sunday afternoon.
When the Bucs' 15-10 loss at San Francisco was over on Sunday, they had a season-low 43 rushing yards on a season-low 20 carries. The 49ers forced the Bucs' hand by taking the lead and playing stellar run defense, and that significantly shifted the balance of power when Tampa Bay had the ball.
The Bucs certainly can win with an all-pass, no-run attack, but the odds go down markedly. Most of the margin for error is removed, and on this day the Bucs ended up making too many errors – most notably three turnovers and five sacks allowed – to come away with the victory. QB Chris Simms had an up-and-down afternoon in his first start of the season, and every struggle was magnified by the lack of a ground-game alternative.
"Sometimes you have days like that where you just don't seem to get anything going," said rookie back Cadillac Williams, who gained just 20 yards on 13 carries. "It wasn't anything magical or a miracle that San Francisco won."
That is precisely what the Buccaneers hope to avoid this Sunday when the Carolina Panthers come to town. The Bucs-Panthers series seems to generate one hard-fought, down-to-the-wire game after another, and the winner is often the team that makes the fewest mistakes. Take away the running game and the opportunities for mistakes are multiplied.
"When it becomes a passing game like that, after the defense starts to get in a rhythm and they realize we're going to start passing the ball a lot, they tee off a little," said quarterback Chris Simms, who took those five sacks, three in the fourth quarter. "The D-linemen start coming up the field and just going after the quarterback."
There's no mystery in the numbers. When the Buccaneers gain at least 100 rushing yards this season, they're 4-0; when they don't, they're 1-2. When the Buccaneers gain at least four yards a carry, they're 3-0; when they don't, they're 2-2.
These numbers aren't confined to this season. Over the last five seasons, the Bucs are 22-5 when they get 100 rushing yards in a game, and 16-28 when they don't. That is a dramatic difference.
And guess what? The Carolina Panthers own the league's second-best run defense at the midway point, just behind the Bucs' own top-ranked unit. Tampa Bay is allowing 75.7 rushing yards per game; the Panthers are at 78.3. There is absolutely no doubt that Carolina will attempt to do what San Francisco did – stall the Bucs' running attack first so they can concentrate on sending extra blitzers at Simms.
"He's going to continue to get everybody's fastball," said Gruden. "They're going to find out where he is and what he is, and he's going to have to respond. We're going to have to work harder to help him, and it would certainly help if we can get some mixture and some balance. But that's easier said than done against North Carolina. These are very stingy individuals against the run and they'll be hard-earned yards, every yard we get."
The Panthers have big defensive tackle Brentson Buckner stuffing the middle and a trio of very fast and active linebackers in Dan Morgan, Will Witherspoon and Brandon Short. Two weeks ago, in a 21-20 road win at Detroit, Carolina held second-year back Kevin Jones and his Lion teammates to just 52 rushing yards. The Bucs hope their own young star, Williams, can crack the Panthers' front for more, but concerns about the rookie's injured foot will linger until he has another big day. In addition, running back Michael Pittman is dealing with a shoulder injury and is questionable on the injury report.
Somebody needs to move the ball on the ground, Simms knows.
"It will be big for us," he said. "Getting Pitt and Cadillac going in the right direction, getting them some positive yards, always helps out the passing game. Again, I think it will make them think twice about blitzing a whole lot if we can gash them early. If Pitt and Cadillac can get to the second level, get to the safeties, no defensive coordinator likes that."
Why expect the Bucs to run the ball at all against Carolina, after struggling so mightily against a statistically inferior opponent in San Francisco. Well, for one thing, Williams could regain the form that took him to an NFL-record 434 rushing yards in his first three games. Playing at home could make a difference, too, particularly if the Bucs move the ball early. And there's also this: The Bucs think the issues that halted the running game last weekend can be resolved.
"If I am going to go to one thing, I would say fundamental football," said center John Wade, trying to explain the running game problems. "Basic steps, pad level, stuff we worked on since we ever were around football. It wasn't the only thing, you know, there were a lot of factors. But I just thought the technique went somewhere...I don't know where it went. We need to find it and bring it back this week."
Indeed. Find the running game and you'll find your chances for victory going up rapidly. The Bucs know it; now they need to make it a reality.