After compiling the franchise’s best rushing performance since 2000, expectations for this season’s ground attack are understandably high for 2011.
Last year’s 2,001-yard rushing total was the highest since Tampa Bay gained 2,066 ten years ago with Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott leading the charge. Tailback LeGarrette Blount’s breakout, 13-game, 1,007-yard performance in 2010 was the first time a Buccaneers rusher hit four digits in that statistical column since Cadillac Williams’ 1,178 in 2005.
Two games into the preseason, though, Tampa Bay’s backfield collection has yet to stand out.
The Bucs’ leading rusher thus far has been backup quarterback Josh Johnson. His 81 yards are more than double the next closest rusher’s total: Kregg Lumpkin with 31 yards on eight carries.
Blount’s only received limited opportunities – nine carries for 19 yards – and his longest rushes have been four, four-yard pickups.
With 19 days remaining until the Detroit Lions enter Raymond James Stadium on Week 1, Bucs players aren’t expressing concern about the effectiveness and potential of their ground game.
Lumpkin, competing for the third-down back position with Earnest Graham and rookie Allen Bradford, said Tuesday that the lackluster statistics haven’t discouraged the group’s approach.
“We’re focusing on what we can do,” said Lumpkin, entering his third season. “When we get a chance to get out there, we’re going to do the best we can to game plan against the defensive scheme opponents are putting up against us.”
Following Thursday’s game, head coach Raheem Morris said the Bucs didn’t specifically game plan for the Patriots’ defensive looks. The preparation for Saturday’s home matchup with Miami will be noticeably more focused, Lumpkin said, adding that the third preseason game holds a little added significance.
“I think it’s very important. We’ll get a chance to game plan and just go out there and play Tampa Bay football – play hard, play fast, play smart. When we get a chance to get out there, we want to make plays.”
Morris acknowledged that the Bucs got shut down on the ground against New England, but isn’t overly concerned.
“We got whacked last week by the Patriots. [New England] had a chance to come in here and really stop the run. We’ve really got to get our offense going, period.”
“I feel great about where we’re going with our preparation,” Morris continued. “We did have one of the best rushing attacks, I think, in our history last year with LeGarrette Blount and Josh Freeman, with his addition and his ability to run, and Josh Johnson and his trick plays. We had Cadillac last year and hopefully we can find somebody to fill that role, maybe Lumpkin or even Allen Bradford. We’ll see. All those guys have got to compete.”
Along with Blount and Lumpkin, here's how the rest of the Bucs running backs have fared on the ground this preseason: Bradford (13 carries for 27 yards), Armando Allen (4 carries for 18 yards) and Mossis Madu (5 carries for 7 yards).
Second-year fullback Erik Lorig said the preseason focus is less on statistical results and more on making strides individually and as a unit.
“I’m not really keeping tabs on that kind of thing,” Lorig said of the low yardage totals. “I keep tabs on my assignment and getting the best grade I can during the game. I think that’s how everybody feels daily and the result is the result. We’re still in preseason and reaching that goal to be the best team we can by the end of this thing.”
Lorig, coming back from a strained Achilles tendon, said he feels 100 percent and is hoped for by the coaching staff to assume the starting role.
Stunting the running backs’ abilities to get anything going against New England was a sketchy performance by the offensive line that committed seven total penalties, eight if including a false start by tight end Nathan Overbay.
“Last week against the Patriots I don’t think we really had a chance to impose our will on them with all the penalties,” said center Jeff Faine. “Those were partly our fault up front, putting ourselves in a hole so much. It’s tough to be able to get the running game going the way we really want it to.”
Left tackle Donald Penn said the unimpressive rushing results can also be attributed to the Bucs offense playing it close to the vest early on.
“We aren’t showing everybody everything in the preseason,” Penn said. “I think Olie [offensive coordinator Greg Olson] is doing a great job of picking and choosing what he wants to put out there for film because you have to understand that every team looks at this film.”
“We still have a lot more stuff in our arsenal that everybody hasn’t seen yet. Olie is going to pick the right time to bring it out. I have 100 percent confidence in everything Olie does. We are behind him.”
Penn did not downplay the running attack’s importance to the Tampa Bay offense, though, and said it is imperative for the line and backs to be effective in the regular season
“I tell everybody all the time, if you can run the ball it’s very hard to beat you,” the six-year veteran out of Utah State said. “When you can run the ball, it creates so many opportunities for you. It helps me out on the pass rush. It helps Josh out on play-action. It just opens up so much stuff. You have control of the time of possession and everything. Running the ball is always the offense’s first priority, and I think it’s one of ours, too.”
Morris reaffirmed his confidence in the offensive line during Tuesday’s post-practice press conference.
“That front five, I feel great about them,” he said. “The starters upfront, we had a chance to build those guys and rebuild them this offseason; get them healthy with Trueblood and James Lee.
“We’ll get those guys going.”