RB Earnest Graham took some reps this week as a stand-in for the Saints' Deuce McAllister
Earnest Graham has an interesting job this week.
As one of the players who dons a scout-team jersey to give the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense a look at the New Orleans Saints' offense, Graham will be asked to emulate veteran running back Deuce McAllister on some snaps. On other plays, he might have to do his best Reggie Bush impersonation.
Talk about range. That's like asking Robert De Niro to play a Corleone and channel his inner Focker on the same movie set.
Graham might feel more like Keanu Reeves – he can really only be who he is. Not many backs in the NFL have the skills to match either McAllister or Bush. The Bucs' third-year player is a talented back in his own right, but that doesn't mean he does impressions. The Bucs might also use practice squad back Lionel Gates in the Bush role, but Tampa Bay's defense won't get a true taste of Bush, the Saints' electric rookie, until Sunday in the Superdome.
When that happens, the Bucs know they'll have their hands full.
"He's really good; he's really fast," said Buccaneers Head Coach Jon Gruden of Bush, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. "They're real creative in how they use him, obviously. He plays like a wide receiver sometimes and as a back at others. He's a very strong runner and he's a very gifted pass receiver, and extremely explosive."
The Saints got their hands on the USC star when the Houston Texans chose to take North Carolina State defensive end Mario Williams with the first overall pick this past April. New Orleans was second, and they didn't hesitate to take Bush despite the sizeable presence of McAllister, the two-time Pro Bowler, on their depth chart. So far, the move has paid off as the Saints are easily finding ways to get both dangerous backs involved in the offense.
McAllister has 64 carries for 257 yards and three touchdowns to Bush's 45-147-0, but the rookie has added a team-high 23 receptions for another 187 yards. The Saints have let Bush handle more than half of their punt return opportunities, too, though he has yet to break a big one in that capacity. Overall, it's working for the team; the Saints rank seventh in the league in total offense.
It's a measure of the expectations on Bush, even working alongside McAllister, that the fact that he hasn't score a touchdown yet - gasp! four whole games into his NFL career and no touchdowns – is a matter of constant discussion in New Orleans. For his part, Bush says he has to avoid pressing to make the big play and find the end zone just let the offense come to him. He's pleased with how he's been involved in the offense to this point.
"Coach [Sean] Payton has done a great job of putting together game plans for us, for me and getting me out there," said Bush. "He's done a great job of that and Drew (Brees) is doing a good job of leading us and getting the ball to me when I'm out there. So far it's been good."
Bush also acknowledged that the Saints' energizing 3-1 start has made any statistical deficiencies easy to overlook. And his running mate, McAllister, has been a big part of that quick start. McAllister missed all but five of New Orleans' games last year due to injury, and that played no small part in the Saints' 3-13 record. Gruden respects the threat that is Reggie Bush but is making sure his team doesn't forget about McAllister, either.
"The guy that no one's talking about, I don't believe, is number 26," said Gruden. "He's back, too. He missed the whole year last year. He is one heck of a load, too. So they've got two great backs. That would be quite a fun job, being a running backs coach for the Saints."
That would be George Henshaw's post. Safe to say Doug Marrone is having a good time so far, too. Marrone is the Saints' new offensive coordinator, and he was blessed with the arrival of not only Bush but heady and productive quarterback Drew Brees from San Diego. Brees has a 92.8 passer rating through four games and is the one making this suddenly loaded New Orleans offense tick.
"They're a lot different [this year]," observed Gruden. "They had a good scheme last year. They threw for a lot of yards, Aaron Brooks threw for a lot of yards there. They put a lot of pressure on people. But now they have a quarterback who has really stabilized them. He's very consistent. He's really solid, down after down. Makes good decisions, understands the protections. No disrespect to Aaron Brooks, but this guy's been one of the top quarterbacks in the AFC the last few seasons and he's bringing that to our conference."
There are some similarities in structure between the offenses run by the Buccaneers and the Saints, too.
"We see some things, yeah," said Gruden. "We see some things we recognize. Sean has put his own spin on things. He's a great coach in his own right and they're doing a better job right now than we are on offense."
That's just making it harder on guys like Graham and Gates. When it comes to impressions, there's only so much they can do. The Bucs will have to wait until Sunday to prove they can stop the real thing.