Neither the 3-1 Tampa Bay Buccaneers nor the 4-0 Indianapolis Colts are going into Sunday’s game completely healthy. In fact, both teams are far from it.
The Bucs placed starting left tackle Luke Petitgout and running back Cadillac Wiliams on injured reserve with their respective knee injuries earlier in the week. Second-year LT Donald Penn will replace Petitgout while Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham carry the load in the running game in place of Williams.
In addition to those two players’ season-ending injuries, the Bucs have four starters – cornerback Phillip Buchanon (foot), wide receiver Ike Hilliard (ankle), cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) and defensive end Greg Spires (ankle) – listed as questionable on their injury report.
The good news for the Bucs is all four of those players practiced at One Buccaneer Place on Friday.
The defending Super Bowl champion Colts are in much worse shape for Sunday’s contest in Indianapolis.
Colts wide receiver Roy Hall (shoulder) and tight end Ben Utecht (concussion) have been ruled out of Sunday’s game.
Several key offensive weapons could be missing from the Colts’ lineup as well, including running back Joseph Addai (chest) and wide receiver Marvin Harrison (knee). Both players are listed as questionable and did not practice on Friday.
In addition to those injuries, Colts linebacker Freddy Keiaho (concussion), wide receiver Aaron Moorehead (back), defensive back T.J. Rushing (hamstring) and safety Bob Sanders (chest) are also listed as questionable and did not practice on Friday.
Not having Sanders or Keiaho would not bode well for Indianapolis’ defense, which placed starting strongside linebacker Rob Morris on injured reserive earlier in the week.
Indianapolis made a team decision to hold defensive back Marlin Jackson and left tackle Tony Ugoh out of practice Friday.
Kickoff for the Bucs vs. Colts game is set for 4:05 p.m. on Sunday.
BUCS' GROUND GAME REVVING UP FOR COLTS
There’s a trap that many teams fall into when playing against quarterback Peyton Manning and the Indianapolis Colts, which consists of keeping Manning on the sideline equals a victory. The fact that is lost in this theory is if Manning is leading the offense into the end zone when he does get on the field, it doesn’t matter how much time you keep him off the field.
The key to beating the defending Super Bowl champions is not only keep Manning on the sideline with a ball-control game plan, but also putting points on the scoreboard and forcing Manning to press a little bit, needing to put points on the board. The Bucs need the same success in their running game this week as in the past two weeks. However, they also need to end time-consuming drives with touchdowns, not field goals.
The Bucs have proven this year that they are a different team when they are scoring touchdowns instead of field goals. In Week 1 on the road against the Seattle Seahawks, Tampa Bay had two drives inside the 20-yard line, but had to settle for field goals and kept the Seahawks in the game and went on to lose 20-6. However, in a 20-7 road victory last week against the Carolina Panthers, the offense took two drives in the first quarter down the field for touchdowns, which took the crowd out of the game.
“I think you fall into that trap; you fall into that trap of thinking lets just turn around and hand it off and make three or four first downs [and] methodically take 12 minutes off the clock,” head coach Jon Gruden said. “You’ve got to try to move the ball and Indianapolis is a lot better defensive club than people realize. We have to try to do something with it and score points and that involves throwing the football and being balanced. We have come out firing in the last few games throwing the ball and we’ve had some success, been able to get some strikes and get some leads. We are going to have play football, not just running not just passing. We are going to have to what we have to do to move it and score and we will go from there.”
The loss of running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams is big for the offense, but the blow has been softened with the play of running backs Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham. Graham has taken advantage of his opportunities so far this season with three touchdowns in the last two games. Pittman has remained solid, consistent and is no stranger to being the feature back in the Bucs offense.
“That’s the one thing, this is my sixth year and I’ve always knew what Earnest had, but there’s only one ball and when we got Carnell [Williams] I said, ‘Woo, this guy is special’,” running backs coach Art Valero said. “I knew that Michael [Pittman] was good, safe, steady, was a starter and we had [Mike] Alstott who was good so we have always had that comfort and the one thing that you learn when you are here is that you better have a contingency plan. So if something does happen, you don’t skip a beat. You feel good with whom you have and you go. That’s what your decision was. When Mike [Alstott] went down, I felt good because I knew we had B.J. [Askew] and we had Pittman who could play fullback because he was cross-trained. Unfortunately, when Cadillac went down, you put Pittman in, you put Earnest in, retrain somebody else to be a backup and we go. We are in the middle of it and we got to go. We can’t got get us another one. We will play with the kids in our own backyard because they have worked hard to be here and I have all the faith in the world in them. You call it, we will haul it. That’s the kind of the situation we are in.”
Even though Gruden’s offense has been categorized as a pass-happy offense, he is the type of coach that has no problem running the ball 25 to 30 times in a game. Last season, the Bucs were behind in most of the games, which forced Gruden to pass the ball more than he would have liked. This season, the Bucs have grabbed early leads and have leaned on the running game heavily, especially in the second half.
Pittman has 30 carries for 170 yards so far this season, but 22 of his 30 carries have come in the second half. Graham has 30 carries for 136 yards and three touchdowns with 23 of his 30 carries and two of his three touchdowns coming in the second half. Indianapolis realizes that the Bucs are a better team when they are able to get a lead and run the ball to control the clock.
“We don’t worry so much about keeping our guys on the sideline. If they get the ball six times, we are going to get the ball six times,” Indianapolis head coach Tony Dungy said. “That was Denver’s philosophy and we scored touchdowns and they kicked field goals. So our big thing is keeping them out of the end zone. Obviously, if you look at Tampa, they have a great record when they run the ball 25 times. When they run it 30-35 times, they have even a better record. So we can’t let them run the football and do what they want to do in terms of controlling the game.”
Pittman has had success against the Colts as evidence of his 16-carry, 106-yard performance in the 2003 matchup at Raymond James Stadium. The thing about that performance the fans might not know is that Pittman was battling through a food-poisoning episode the night before the game. The 10th year back is going to make sure that doesn’t happen on Sunday and believes that he still has a lot of juice left in his legs to carry the running game.
“The past couple of years I haven’t played too much in the running game, but I was always involved in the game,” Pittman said. “And at my age, most of the guys in the game don’t have a lot left in the tank, but I got a lot left. The majority of my career I shared time. I was never the running back that carried the ball 300 times in a season. Injury-wise, I’ve never had a big injury so I’m fresh and I’m ready to go. I’m hungrier than anything; I’m not anxious, I just want to go out there, have a good time and play hard.”
Pittman and Graham have noticed the improvement of the run blocking with the offensive linemen and are taking advantage of more holes to run through. Both running backs bring a physical style that tends to punish and wear on defenses as the game moves on. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood enjoys being able to run the ball right at a defense even when they know it is coming.
“Any time you can get up by more than one score you are going to start at least running the ball a little bit more than in the beginning in any offense,” Trueblood said. “I know as an offensive lineman, when we come out there and I see a beast of a pass rusher out there and I know that we are winning and I can just run the ball at him, that it makes my day a little bit easier. But you still have to pass at least some time.”
That will be the key to the success against the Colts defense that plays fast, is aggressive and likes to fly around to the ball. If the Bucs can establish the running game early against Indianapolis, it will allow Tampa Bay to use the play action pass and slow down the speed edge rushers in Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis.
Gruden has stressed all week about having a balanced offense and the Bucs will need just that to bring home another big road victory. Tampa Bay needs to start fast like it did last week against Carolina and keep the crowd on its hands, which is exactly what a strong, ball-control running game can do.
“I thought we had four or five really good possessions against a good defensive team, no question, on the road [in Carolina],” Gruden said. “We’re going to need more of that to win big games. The message is similar to what it was last week.”
QUOTE OF THE DAY
Head coach Jon Gruden on the Bucs' chances with quarterback Jeff Garcia running the offense.
“I remember I drove from Green Bay to hear [former Vikings head coach] Bud Grant speak. Bud Grant said every head coach needs three things: he needs a patient wife, a loyal dog, and a hell of a quarterback. And not necessarily in that order. We have a hell of a quarterback and he gives us a chance. The guy gives us a chance, every given Sunday he gives us a chance. I’m really impressed. Forget his playmaking and what he has done between the lines, but what he does in this building and off the field is really important for our football team.”
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