With LeGarrette Blount doubtful for Sunday’s game against the Saints, and the surprise release of third-string running Allen Bradford on Thursday, it appears the Buccaneers will head into Sunday’s matchup with just two healthy running backs on the roster: Earnest Graham and Kregg Lumpkin.
Lumpkin is looking forward to getting a chance to show the coaches, his teammates and the fans what he is capable of.
“I’m very excited," Lumpkin said. “I didn’t know until this morning [about Bradford’s release]. But we have go out here and play the Saints and try and get a win. Just continue to get better every week. I’m confidant in knowing the offense. But I’m never going to say I have everything 100 percent. There is always some thing new I can learn and get better at.”
The wily eight-year veteran Graham, who Raheem Morris calls “Mr. Reliable,” is also eager to showcase himself in the role as featured back.
"I'm definitely looking forward to it because my team is counting on me, and they have a lot of confidence in me," Graham told Stephen Holder of the St. Petersburg Times on Thursday. "Over the years, they've always rooted for me to carry the ball quite a bit, but I didn't get put in that situation. I'm definitely excited to step up for my team and provide something."
Lumpkin, who is in his second season with the Buccaneers, has admired Graham since joining Tampa Bay in 2010.
In the classroom he just has so much wisdom,” Lumpkin said. “He understands the offense. He understands defenses; how they work and how we can attack them. We can just learn from him by watching him. Watching film of him running the ball and how patient he is just reading holes. You can just learn so much from him.
“I think he is a very unselfish player. He just goes out there and is a team guy. Team first. You can always rely on him. As coach says, he is on the trust team.”
Head coach Raheem Morris is one of Graham’s biggest fans, and isn’t losing any sleep worrying about the former State of Florida Mr. Football’s ability to carry the load along with Lumpkin.
“I am always confidant in Earnest,” Morris said. "I don’t know if Earnest needs to take the ball 20 times and try and go out there and be LeGarrette Blount. I need Lumpkin and Earnest to go out there and work as a team and to figure out a way to get us what we need rushing. Whatever that is. Whatever we need to control the game. I think they need to figure out a way to get out there and protect Freeman. They need to go out there and figure out a way to be even better than Blount even was when he was out there.
“But confidence-wise, I’m confident in both those young men. I think they are both smart, I think they are both sharp and detailed. And they will go out there and execute to the best of their knowledge.”
Offensive captain and starting center Jeff Faine has trust in his running backs, regardless of who is carrying the football.
“We don’t change anything the offensive line does,” Faine. “We love blocking for LeGarrette and Earnest is a great back. Runs the ball well. Runs it true by hitting the reads right. Hopefully the running game has no let down. This is a good opportunity for Earnest to get back out there and be the featured back.”
Like most members of the coaching staff and players have said all week, the Saints defense presents problems for opposing teams with a wide variety of looks and blitz packages devised by their leader, veteran NFL defensive coordinator Gregg Williams.
“It’s neither [defensive line or linebackers that present the biggest challenge],” Faine said. “It is schematics. The way they work together gives offenses multiple looks. Gregg Williams does a fantastic job creating confusion.”
“When you say, 'blitz traditionally,' it means bringing more than seven,” Faine explained. “He doesn’t necessarily bring more than seven, he just brings it from different angles. He has guys coming from different angles where you wouldn’t expect it. He does a fantastic job disguising it and playing poker with his coverages. He brings it from everywhere.
“What it does is it elevates the ability of his players. You can never just be all in on a certain look. You have to be able to adjust mid-play. Sometimes in a pre-snap look he can fool you.”
While heading into a divisional matchup short-handed at running back isn't an optimal situation for any NFL head coach, Morris subscribes to the next man up theory. In the event Graham or Lumpkin are injured, the next men up normally are pass catchers.
“You always got a guy like Arrelious Benn," he said. "You always got a guy like Michael Spurlock. You got those guys that can take the ball."
Morris even joked that maybe a new star will emerge.
“Maybe we can make Erik Lorig look like Mike Alstott [if it comes down to that].”