With three games left on the schedule, the 1,000-yard milestone is still within reach for Tampa Bay running back Cadillac Williams. And in a season filled with disappointment, reaching that number may be one of only a handful of positives from which to build on looking ahead to 2007.

“I think its significant,” offensive coordinator Bill Muir said. “I don’t know with 16 games if 1,000 yards is the same benchmark it was when you played 12 games, but I think it is a high water mark in terms of productivity.

“Obviously, the most important thing is to win games, regardless of yards gained by anybody, but I would say there would be some satisfaction in that, not only for Cadillac but for everybody.”

It’s easy to categorize Williams’ season as a disappoint, maybe due to the fact he turned in such an outstanding rookie season or the fact that wins have been so hard to come by for the team. But entering Sunday’s game at Chicago, the sophomore back sits 228 yards away from 1,000, meaning he needs to average 76 yards a game in his next three starts to reach the standard for the second year in a row.

Williams would need to step up his production by about 20 yards per game seeing as he has averaged 59 yards in the team’s 13 previous outings. That goal is not out of the realm of possibility considering the Bucs’ three remaining opponents are allowing opposing offenses to run 100 yards or more per game.

Even the vaunted Bears defense, which is ranked No. 3 overall in the NFL, is more susceptible to the run than the pass, allowing 105 yards per game on the ground, putting them at No. 11 in the league.

They are not untouchable. This season, Chicago’s defense has allowed four backs to run for 100 or more yards in a game, including a three-game stretch in which San Francisco’s Frank Gore (111), Miami’s Ronnie Brown (157) and the Giants’ Tiki Barber (141) exposed the unit’s ability to stop the run.

In the season opener, the Packers’ Ahman Green gained 110, and two weeks ago the Vikings’ Chester Taylor came up a yard shy with 99.

Cadillac Williams finished the 2005 campaign with more yards than any of those backs with the exception of Barber, posting five 100-yard games on his way to a 1,178-yard total. However, this year he has hit the century mark just twice, once in a week four loss at New Orleans in which he went for 111 yards and again in November when he put up a season high 122 yards in a win over Washington.

When asked if he thought getting Williams 1,000 yards would constitute at least a mild victory in which to build on, Muir said there’s no question about it.

“We know Cadillac has talent and we think he’s one of the better backs in the league, so rather than saying he is, or we project it, to have it on the board is always better than to have it on the mind.”

Over the last couple of weeks, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has given more carries to back up Michael Pittman and fullback Mike Alstott. On Friday, Gruden said as much as he would like to hand the ball to Cadillac non-stop, he plans to play a committee of backs again against Chicago.

“The goal is to see Cadillac carry it every play in the game, and I’m not being facetious,” Gruden said. “I’d really like to see the guy max out the kind of true potential he has, no disrespect to anybody.”

In 2005, Williams averaged 20 carries a game. Twice he was asked to carry the ball 30 times, and on both occasions gained 150 or more yards. This year he is averaging a little over 16 carries a game with a high of 27 against Washington.

When the Bucs met the Bears last November, Gruden called Williams’ number 20 times. He gained 80 yards, but it was Alstott’s 2-yard plunge with 7:00 left in the fourth, which produced the team’s only touchdown in a 13-10 loss.

Time and time again, Gruden has said that this season defenses are taking away the run early, daring rookie quarterback Bruce Gradkowski to beat them with his arm. Abandoning the run game too quickly has brought some highly publicized criticism upon the coach. But a heavy dose of Cadillac, he says, requires other facets of the game to produce. In other words, you have to possess a legitimate threat in both the run and pass. 

“You have to be persistent with the running game,” Gruden said. “Sometimes you’re not going to come out and have great success early, but you have to be committed to it. We’ve tried to do that.

“At the same time, you have to be able to throw the football in certain situations and to do that, you have to be able to pass protect, you have to throw and catch and you have to convert some third downs.”

In addition to being more persistent with the run, Gruden alluded to the need to be more creative in the plays he calls for Cadillac and company.

According to Muir, the tactical standpoint the Bucs offense takes depends largely on the ebb and flow of the game, adding the next two games are to take place in cold weather environments which lends itself to a heavy prescription of running plays.

The Los Angeles Lakers have always had their ‘show time’ scorer, whether it was Jerry West, Magic Johnson or Kobe Bryant. The New York Yankees seem able to reproduce a clutch team captain decade after decade from Joe DiMaggio to Derek Jeter. Likewise, Bears fans demand a stone cold force in middle of their defense in which to hang their hat on.

Dick Butkus set the standard in the late 1960s. Mike Singletary picked up the torch in the 80s. And from that same mold arrived the latest middle linebacker to lead the Monsters of the Midway, Brian Urlacher.

The five-time Pro Bowler and 2005 Associated Press Defensive Player of the Year is the main line of resistance between Cadillac Williams and the end zone. Last year, Urlacher was limited to five tackles against the Bucs. Williams feels it wouldn’t be a bad idea to put a helmet on Urlacher come Sunday.

“The guy is a heck of a linebacker,” Williams said. “I had the privilege of playing against the guy last year and just from watching on film, I think he is one of the fastest linebackers in the league. From sideline to sideline, he covers a lot of ground.”

Urlacher reached the 100-tackle milestone for the seventh consecutive season this year and produced 25 in one game against Arizona in Week six.

Clearing holes should be interesting as football purists could see some classic collisions between the 6-foot-4, 258-pound backer and 6-foot-1, 250-pound Bucs fullback Mike Alstott. Another guy who figures to get a crack at him is guard Davin Joseph. The rookie says he won’t be intimidated.

“They play a defense similar to ours, so they’ll put you on linebackers quite often, and in blitz pick up, so I’ll see him quite a lot,” Joseph said.

“You hear about his speed and his intensity. The guy plays hard, he’s a tough player, so it will be quite a challenge. But that doesn’t scare any of us, he’s a football player just like we are.”

When coaches speak of an offensive line in terms of being a solid unit capable of controlling a game, they are typically speaking about a group of veterans that have been playing together for several seasons.

Injuries along the offensive line, which lead to playing back ups and rookies, make it very difficult for any team to be successful. And the Bucs haven’t had the kind of continuity that breeds success all season.

Playing a defense such as the Bears affords an excellent opportunity to make a statement and build momentum, especially for rookies Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood.

Trueblood says he is frustrated with the lack of success in the running game and that, as a group, the offensive line is going to continue to try as hard as possible to establish themselves as a dominant force.

Joseph places the blame on a general lack of execution.

Offensive line coach Bill Muir says, at this point of the season, he is impressed by both rookies’ progress.

“I think you’d have to be very encouraged with the learning curve of both Davin and Jeremy,” Muir said. “It hasn’t been a case of let’s just put them on the field and let them learn. We’ve put them on the field and in their own right they’ve had a significant degree of productivity.

“They’re not only productive, but so to speak learning the NFL ropes. So I think it’s extremely encouraging, the progress that they make almost on a weekly basis.”

All players participated in Friday’s practice. Cornerback Juran Bolden (quadriceps), LB Shelton Quarles (knee/ankle) and DT Ellis Wyms (ankle) are questionable.

Cornerback Phillip Buchannon (groin) is probable.

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