For the second consecutive week, head coach Jon Gruden had to address the loss of a running back to injury at his Monday press conference. Last week after a 20-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers, Gruden announced that running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams was lost for the season with a knee injury.
On Monday, Gruden announced that running back Michael Pittman will be out for 6-8 weeks with an ankle injury. The Bucs were awaiting the results of an MRI on the running back’s right ankle to specify exactly how bad the injury is. Pittman left Sunday’s contest vs. the Colts, a 33-14 loss, in the second quarter after linebacker Tyjuan Hagler rolled up on his right ankle.
“He is getting evaluated at this point, but it looks like it will be a 6 to 8 week injury,” Gruden said. “It is a pretty good sprain we do believe. It’s a tough blow for us.”
Pittman had 35 carries for 169 yards, averaging 4.8 yards per carry so far this season.
The injury hinders Tampa Bay's ground game, which currently ranks 15th in the NFL, and leaves running backs Earnest Graham and Kenneth Darby as the next players in line to carry the ball for the offense. That's not necessarily ideal for the Bucs when considering the fact that neither Graham nor Darby has a career start in the NFL.
Graham, who has been a special teams’ ace for his entire career, will get the start on Sunday against the Tennessee Titans. The last start for the four-year running back came in his last game with the Florida Gators in the Outback Bowl, coincidentally in Raymond James Stadium, against the Michigan Wolverines.
“It’s tough, man,” Graham said. “Cadillac [Williams] and Mike [Pittman] are my brothers as well as my teammates. Seeing guys go down like that is tough. I’m going to have to step up even more now because I don’t have Cadillac or Mike playing next to me. I have to keep the running game going.”
The Florida alum has 36 carries for 147 yards and three touchdowns so far this season, but struggled vs. the Colts with only 11 yards on six carries. Darby was on the active roster for the first time this season vs. Colts, but didn’t see any action. The rookie out of Alabama, however, will see playing time on Sunday.
What kind of production he can supply to the offense is a mystery though.
“We are going to have to find out,” Gruden said. “We think he’s a good back, a good runner so we are going to find out.”
Darby had 135 yards on 33 carries and one touchdown during the preseason, along with five receptions for 36 yards.
The Bucs have been in talks with the Minnesota Vikings about a possible trade for running back Mewelde Moore. According to reports from ESPN, Tampa Bay offered a second-day draft pick for Moore, but the Vikings are looking for a first-day pick. With Pittman’s injury, the Bucs could be more inclined to give up compensation, whether it's a player or a draft pick.
“We need somebody,” Graham said. “That’s not a knock on me or anybody else. We need more depth. It’s a long season and it’s a tough game. You are going to need some running backs.”
If the Bucs do obtain another running back through a trade or free agency, it will be hard to expect production immediately. Gruden’s offense is very sophisticated and not one that is picked up quickly. Graham admitted that it took him at least three weeks to pick up the offense so the ideal situation for the Bucs is to find a running back that has played in a West Coast system before.
“It will be tough because it’s probably the most difficult system in the NFL,” Graham said. “Guys that have been around in this league definitely say that. We have a lot of plays and a lot of protections that you have to be able to pick up in a short time. You bring in a guy, a smart guy and over time they’ll pick it up. It took me a couple of weeks. It all depends on the person.”
Gruden joked in his press conference about cornerback Ronde Barber helping to convince his brother, Tiki, who retired in the offseason after 10 years with the New York Giants, to return the NFL and assist the Bucs at running back.
“I’ve got Barry Sanders’ number in my pocket and we have a lot of guys and as I said earlier, I do have a heck of an imagination,” Gruden said.
The chances of the Bucs luring Barber out of retirement and trading for him are slim to none. However, Tampa Bay likely will add at least one running back to its active roster over the next 48 hours.
That player(s) could land with the Bucs via free agency or a trade. Tampa Bay has inquired about the possibility of trading for Mewelde Moore and San Diego RB Michael Turner. The Bucs also worked out several running backs last week, including David Wimbush, Zach Crockett and Patrick Pass
Another option the Bucs have is to promote RB DonTrell Moore from the practice squad to the active roster. However, Moore just signed on to Tampa Bay's practice squad last week.
The health at the running back position hasn’t been a pleasant one for the Bucs, beginning with the injury to fullback Mike Alstott in training camp. The Purdue alum was placed on IR before the first preseason game after suffering an injury to his neck.
The adjustments at running back have been a constant for the Bucs, but Gruden is used to it after having to adjust with the injuries at the quarterback position last season.
“Well you have to adjust because Cadillac was a guy that was featured on first and second down and Pittman is a guy that has been featured on third down and now we’ve lost both of those backs,” Gruden said. “We’ve adjusted to a new left tackle yesterday and we’ve had to make numerous adjustments and that’s one thing we are good at, changing at personnel. At this point, we will have to make some adjustments for sure and we are looking forward to doing that.”
In other injury news, Gruden informed the media on Monday that wide receiver Ike Hilliard (ankle) and cornerback Brian Kelly (groin) reaggravated their repsective injuries during Sunday's game. The extent of those injuries will be clearer on Wednesday, which is when the team's first injury report of the week will be released.
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