RB Rabih Abdullah had his most prolific day as a pro against Dallas
On Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost stellar cornerback Donnie Abraham to a concussion and a hip injury early in the second quarter. RB Warrick Dunn wasn't hurt, but after running for 210 yards through three-and-a-half quarters, he was pulled from the lineup for his own safety.
The Buccaneers rolled on.
Abraham and Dunn are likely to be key figures in the Bucs' stretch drive, and in the playoffs if that drive is successful. Losing either for a significant period of time would be a difficult blow for Tampa Bay to absorb.
Nobody doubts that fact, but it wasn't immediately evident over the short term on Sunday. CB Brian Kelly replaced Abraham for the remainder of the game and RB Rabih Abdullah kept the ground machine humming when Dunn came out near the end. That those two star players could come out without leaving the team hamstrung is a testament to the Buccaneers' nearly unmatched roster depth.
On Sunday, it was a testament to the skills of Abdullah and Kelly.
Very quietly, Abdullah has become a key figure on the Bucs' special teams, which has helped keep him around for those times when Dunn needs a rest or, in the current situation, when the team needs a bigger back for short-yardage plays in Mike Alstott's absence.
Early in the season, the Bucs' weekly inactive lists always featured either Abdullah or fellow back-up back Aaron Stecker. At week six, however, Head Coach Tony Dungy switched up that plan, keeping both running backs active so that Stecker could return kickoffs and Abdullah could cover them. The third-year running back from Lehigh has since emerged as one of the team's most consistently productive cover men.
Since coming off a four-game stint on the inactive list in week six at Minnesota, Abdullah has racked up 14 special teams tackles in eight games, tied for the most stops over that period with S Dexter Jackson. He has had at least one tackle in seven of those eight games, including four solo stops last week against Buffalo.
"He has done a great job on special teams, become one of the leaders," said Dungy. "And the fact that, once Mike got hurt, both the backs came into play. It's good to have him and he's doing a great job."
Against Dallas, after Dunn had carried 22 times and the Bucs were merely trying to run out the clock, Abdullah came on to finish off the Cowboys. While Dallas' run defense had been exposed as porous by Dunn, it should be noted that all 65,000 people in attendance, including the entire Dallas defense, knew Abdullah was going to get the ball on every carry. Overall, Abdullah still managed to rack up a career-best 38 rushing yards on 10 carries in the game, with a long run of 14 yards. He also caught one pass for 11 yards earlier in the second half.
"Rabih has practiced hard all year," said Dungy. "He got a chance to really go for the first time and he took advantage of it."
Kelly saw even more action, taking over at left cornerback after Abraham got hurt trying to stop RB Michael Wiley from reaching the sticks on a third-down screen pass. While Kelly's most notable play – a nine-yard interception return for a touchdown off a deflected pass – occurred in the first quarter before Abraham was injured, he went on to have a very solid game in his expanded role.
"Brian had a big, big game and made some big plays," said Dungy. "I think the fact that he plays 30 to 40 plays a game in normal situations really helped him step in there."
Kelly finished with a tackle, two passes defensed and a fumble recovery to go with his key interception, and he showed a nose for the football. Kelly broke up several Troy Aikman passes by closing quickly on the intended receivers, and when LB Derrick Brooks stripped RB Emmitt Smith of the football early in the fourth quarter, Kelly was there to fall on the loose ball almost before it hit the turf. That turnover was critical, as it ended a Cowboy threat that had reached the Buccaneers' 11-yard line and was threatening to pull Dallas within one touchdown of the lead.
Kelly now has 45 tackles, one interception, two fumble recoveries and 12 passes defensed on the season, while Abdullah has contributed 56 rushing yards, 14 more yards on two receptions and 17 special teams tackles. Both have performed well when given the opportunity; by doing so again on Sunday, Abdullah and Kelly gave the Buccaneer coaching staff renewed optimism that it could weather whatever injuries come along.