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WILL RB BENNETT BE A BUC IN 2008?
Running back Michael Bennett made it known in recent weeks that he was not happy with the amount of touches he had been receiving as a Buccaneer.

Since arriving in Tampa Bay via a trade with Kansas City on Oct. 16, Bennett had carried the ball just 11 times for 69 yards and one touchdown in seven games heading into Sunday's contest with Atlanta.

Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden apparently was listening as Bennett carried the ball nine times for 63 yards (7.0 avg.) in the fourth quarter of the Buccaneers' 37-3 win over the Falcons.

While he was pleased with the increased workload, Bennett was even more excited about being part of the Bucs' 2007 NFC South division title, which was his first division championship in seven seasons in the NFL.

"It was a lot of fun," Bennett said of last Sunday's game. "I really haven't touched the ball a lot since I left Kansas City. I guess a few times here and there. It was fun, especially with it being my first time as part of a division championship. I got a chance to play in the game late. Overall I thought it was good. I just wish I would have been a little fresher and looser when I got in because I think I could have scored on that [season-high 28-yard] run.

"I think I showed enough to make the coaches confident in my ability."

Gruden likes what he has seen from Bennett as a runner, but suggested he still has plenty of room for improvement in other areas, mainly blitz pickup on passing downs.

"I thought he showed pretty well," Gruden said of Bennett. "It was good to have him in the game. I thought [Michael] Pittman and Earnest [Graham] ran the ball well, too. We did like what we saw from Michael Bennett. We just want to see him continue to pick up the other areas, too. That was pretty much a one-dimensional part of the game where we weren't trying to throw it or anything like that. But I am very confident in Bennett as a runner."

Bennett has carried the ball 20 times for 132 yards (6.6 avg.) and one touchdown as a Buccaneer. He's still in the process of digesting Gruden's complex playbook, but hopes last Sunday's workload is a sign of things to come as the Buccaneers begin to prepare for the playoffs.

"Percentage-wise, I'd probably say I'm at about 70 or 80 percent," Bennett said of learning Gruden's playbook. "It's coming along and starting to stick. Some of the line calls I'm not familiar with because at Kansas City the line calls were something different. Being traded in the middle of a season and not really having the time to really sit down and learn the system is the toughest thing about being traded, and I don't wish that upon anybody.

"I just want to continue to get this system down and compete week in and week out. Hopefully we can get in the Super Bowl and win it because we are very close. We've got a few games left and then the playoffs start, and that's when it really starts. I think I'm starting to come on at the right time."

Getting more touches could prove to be difficult for Bennett, though. Tampa Bay's ground attack currently ranks 10th in the NFL thanks to the impressive job Graham has done in place of Cadillac Williams, who went on injured reserve in Week 4 with a torn patellar tendon.

Graham has rushed 213 times for 877 yards (4.1 avg.) and 10 touchdowns while hauling in 47 passes for 313 yards. Pittman is also starting to come around from a sprained ankle he sustained in Week 5 at Indianapolis.

Bennett has actually leaned on Graham, a 2003 undrafted free agent, in an effort to help accelerate the learning curve. He attributes what little success he's had in Tampa Bay to Graham's willingness to help him better understand Gruden's version of the West Coast offense.

"Earnest Graham is a pro's pro," said Bennett. "He is not a selfish guy. He helps me to help myself. I really like the way he handles himself on and off the field. You can learn a lot from being around a guy like that for so long. I haven't been around that long, but I've already learned a lot. He deserves everything he is getting right now."

Bennett, 28, is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent during the 2008 offseason. Discussions regarding a contract extension for Bennett haven't taken place between his agent and the Buccaneers.

That doesn't necessarily mean Tampa Bay doesn't want Bennett to return next year. The Bucs will have a need for a running back as Williams' injury and rehab likely will linger into the 2008 season and Pittman is scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent since a playing time clause in his deal will cause the remaining two years (2008 and 2009) on this contract to void.

However, the Bucs still are in the process of determining Bennett's value and ability to become a well-rounded back in Gruden's system, and Bennett still is attempting to figure out what his role will be as a Buccaneer if he resumes his career in Tampa Bay next year.

"I think so, but it's really one of those things where you have to wait and see," Bennett said when asked if he wants to play in Tampa Bay next year. "If you look at the types of numbers Earnest Graham is putting up, it's definitely a great system for a running back. Coach Gruden also does a great job of getting the ball to the backs out of the backfield on check downs, isolation routes and things like that.

"Hopefully this is home and this is it. I'd like to finish out my career with one team. I still have young, fresh legs and still have my speed. I still can be utilized and over the past two years I really haven't been banged up a lot. My thing is just to continue to stay focused. We'll see where I am at the end of the year."

Bennett has started 50 career games since entering the NFL with the Minnesota Vikings as a first-round pick in 2001. He has rushed 789 times for 3,558 yards (4.5 avg.) and 13 touchdowns and caught 145 passes for 1,164 yards since entering the league out of Wisconsin.

Those numbers, along with his impressive speed, could earn the 5-foot-9, 207-pound Bennett an opportunity to start for several different teams next year. With Graham playing as well as he has in place of Williams, a starting running back job might not be up for grabs in Tampa Bay.

However, Bennett doesn't necessarily feel like he has to be the starting running back to remain a Buccaneer. He is well aware of the success two-back sets have had for several teams in the NFL, and he believes both he and Graham can co-exist in Tampa Bay.

"Everybody is going to a two-back system now," said Bennett. "That normally carries throughout the playoffs and Super Bowl runs. The two-back sets are what everyone is going to because it's keeping the main guy healthy and keeping everyone fresh.

"I just want to play. I'm not so concerned with starting and being out there for every play. Everybody wants to be a starter. Of course I'd like to be a starter again, but I really just want to be part of it."

HOW DO THE BUCS MATCH UP IN THE FIRST ROUND OF THE PLAYOFFS?
We've had several Pewter Report readers and subscribers inquire about how the Buccaneers will fare in the first round of the playoffs.

Well, in order to answer that question one must first determine which team the Buccaneers will play in the Wild Card playoff round.

Five teams – the New York Giants, Minnesota Vikings, Washington Redskins, New Orleans Saints and Carolina Panthers – still are alive for the final two seeds in the NFC playoff race.

Although I will go more in depth into Tampa Bay's first playoff opponent, here's my quick take on how the Bucs would match up against the five teams that still have the opportunity to face off with the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium in the first round of the playoffs.

New York Giants (9-5)
At first glace, the Giants appear to be a tough opponent. If the playoffs started today, Tampa Bay would host New York on Wild Card weekend. The Giants are 6-1 on the road this year, but not one of those road wins came against a team with a winning record, and two of them came courtesy of woeful Atlanta and Miami.

Giants quarterback Eli Manning shouldn't scare anybody, including the Bucs, who have the No. 1-ranked pass defense in the NFC and the third-ranked defense in the NFL. Manning is tied with Carson Palmer (Cincinnati), Jon Kitna (Detroit) and believe it or not, Tony Romo (Dallas), for most amount of interceptions thrown with 17. He is also only completing 55.6 percent of his passes and has tossed 19 touchdowns. Manning has been sacked just 24 times this season, but opposing defenses don't necessarily have to get to him in order to create turnovers.

New York's passing attack suffered a huge blow last week when tight end Jeremy Shockey broke his leg. He is out for the year. Manning still has wide receiver Plaxico Burress, though. He has caught a team-leading 10 touchdowns passes. Manning also has a decent one-two punch in the running game, which is led by Brandon Jacobs and Derrick Ward. But neither one of them is Tiki Barber.

The defensive side of the ball is New York's strength. The Giants have notched a whopping 49 sacks through 14 games, which comes out to 3.5 per game. Pro Bowl defensive end Osi Umenviora has 12 sacks, DE Michael Strahan has nine and defensive tackle Justin Tuck has 10.

At this point, the Giants look like a team the Buccaneers can beat, especially at Ray-Jay. However, the Giants must first make the playoffs. They lost last week to the Redskins and their two remaining contests – at Buffalo and New England – are not easy. That's not good news for a Giants team that has earned a reputation for collapsing down the stretch under head coach Tom Coughlin.

Minnesota Vikings (8-6)
The Vikings have two of the main ingredients needed to be a serious playoff and Super Bowl contender – a strong ground attack and defense.

Minnesota's offense is led by rookie running back Adrian Peterson, who has rushed for 1,278 yards (5.9 avg.) and 12 touchdowns en route to making the Pro Bowl. The good news for Tampa Bay's defense, which has had mixed results against the run this year, is Chicago's defense laid out the blue print on how to contain Peterson last week by limiting him to just 78 yards rushing on 20 carries.

Second-year quarterback Travaris Jackson is a tremendous athlete, but he's not a polished passer. Jackson has completed just 59 percent of his passes and tossed six touchdowns and 10 interceptions. He also has mobility, evidenced by his 42 rushing attempts for 180 yards and one touchdown. Jackson already plays with poor technique, and if Tampa Bay's defense could pressure him early and often the Buccaneers could create some much-needed turnovers. The Vikings have allowed 34 sacks this season.

The Vikings do not have a strong passing game. In fact, their leading receiver is wide receiver Bobby Wade, who has caught a team-leading 46 passes for 521 yards and one touchdown.

Minnesota's defense is outstanding vs. the run. The Vikings are surrendering just 68 yards rushing per game. While teams have been able to move the ball through the air vs. Minnesota, defensive backs Dwight Smith and Darren Sharper each have four interceptions.

The Vikings have a huge game at home vs. the Redskins on Sunday Night Football. The loser of that contest could be out of the playoff race. Minnesota is 3-4 on the road this year, and its two remaining games are against Washington and at Denver.

New Orleans Saints (7-7)
After starting the season 0-4, the Saints have gone 7-3 over their past 10 regular season games and still are very much alive for a playoff spot even though the NFC South division title belongs to Tampa Bay.

The Buccaneers swept the Saints in the regular season, holding their potent offense to two touchdowns per game. Tampa Bay was even able to defeat New Orleans on the road with Luke McCown filling in for injured starting quarterback Jeff Garcia.

While New Orleans' offense, which is averaging 359 yards per game, still is led by quarterback Drew Brees, this unit is without its two star running backs – Deuce McAllister and Reggie Bush, both of whom are on injured reserve.

However, Brees still has wide receiver Marques Colston to work with. Colston has hauled in a team-leading 87 passes for 1,092 yards and nine touchdowns and is one of the main reasons why the Saints are converting nearly 50 percent of their third down attempts.

New Orleans' defense is the team's Achilles' heel. It is allowing an average of 347 yards per contest and the Buccaneers were able to move the ball at will against the Saints in their two meetings this year.

It's tough to beat a team three times in one season, but the Bucs would take their chances at home against the Saints, who must win their final two games vs. Philadelphia and at Chicago in order to have a shot at securing a spot in the playoffs.

Washington Redskins (7-7)
The Redskins could be a dangerous team for the Buccaneers to face in the post-season, but Washington must make the playoffs first. That won't be easy with their two remaining games being at Minnesota and vs. Dallas.

The Buccaneers needed four fumbles and two interceptions to defeat the Redskins 19-13 at Raymond James Stadium in November, and that was without ‘Skins safety Sean Taylor, who was killed in his home less than 24 hours after that game was played.

Washington quarterback Jason Campbell was able to complete 30-of-49 passes en route to helping the Redskins convert 9-of-17 (52 percent) of their third down attempts vs. the Bucs in that contest. However, Campbell might not play again this season due to injury, which means the Redskins will go as far as backup QB Todd Collins takes them.

The ‘Skins offense, which features two dangerous players in running back Clinton Portis and tight end Chris Cooley, also produced 412 vs. the Bucs defense, which currently ranks No. 3 overall in the NFL.

Tampa Bay's offense generated just 192 yards vs. Washington, but it was without starting QB Jeff Garcia, who suffered a back injury on the first series and was replaced by an ineffective Bruce Gradkowski.

The Buccaneers defeated the Redskins during the 2005 regular season just to lose to the ‘Skins at home in the playoffs that year. Tampa Bay wouldn't want history to repeat itself, but that certainly would be possible as Washington head coach Joe Gibbs owns a 17-6 record in post-season play. If the Bucs and Redskins meet again in the playoffs, expect the contest to go down to the wire. Eight of the last nine meetings between Tampa Bay and Washington since 1998 have been decided by six points or less.

Carolina Panthers (6-8)
Don't count on the Panthers going to the playoffs. They need a lot of help, and they will have to find a way to help themselves with games vs. Dallas and at Tampa Bay to finish the regular season.

The Panthers have no quarterback, no running game and an inconsistent defense (recorded just 19 sacks through 14 games). Wide receiver Steve Smith is a solid player, but he's not good enough to carry the Panthers out of Raymond James Stadium with a win over the Bucs in the playoffs.

If the Panthers do manage to make the playoffs, it will mean they will have defeated the Cowboys and Buccaneers over the final two games of the regular season, which would certainly give them momentum and confidence heading into a playoff contest in Tampa Bay. However, the Panthers just aren't a playoff-caliber team, so expect their true colors to show over the next two weeks and Carolina to possibly be eliminated from post-season consideration as early as Saturday night.

GRUDEN PICKED A GOOD YEAR TO DELIVER
It was no secret that Bucs head coach Jon Gruden entered the 2007 season on the hot seat after watching his team suffer through three losing seasons over the previous four years.

Gruden has responded to his critics and the pressure by getting the Bucs off to a 9-5 start and winning the 2007 NFC South division title, which comes with an automatic home playoff game.

That feat gives Gruden five division titles in his 10 seasons as a NFL head coach. It also gives him his third division titles in six years with the Bucs, who now have six division titles in the 32-year history of the franchise.

But what if Gruden, whose overall record as a head coach in the NFL stands at 48-46 (.544 winning percentage), hadn't fared well this year and was about to lose his job as a result?

Some people probably would be pleased with that scenario as they, for whatever reason(s), are not behind Tampa Bay's head coach, who delivered the team's first and only Super Bowl title to date.

Coaching changes are never easy to make or endure, but the 2008 offseason would have been particularly tough for the Bucs as several NFL teams could be making head coaching changes.

Among the coaches that might not be back with their respective teams after this season include Brian Billick (Baltimore), Cam Cameron (Miami), Tom Coughlin (New York Giants), Jack Del Rio (Jacksonville), John Fox (Carolina), Marvin Lewis (Cincinnati), Scott Linehan (St. Louis), Mike Nolan (San Francisco) and Andy Reid (Philadelphia). You can also throw in the Atlanta Falcons, who do not plan to keep interim head coach Emmitt Thomas on in that same capacity past this season.

Just imagine if the Buccaneers were included in that group. There could be as many as 10 teams looking – and competing — for the services of a new head coach 2008. That's nearly one third of the league.

It's not like there are a plethora of quality head coaches available for these teams to choose from. And to make matters worse, the top coaching candidate on everyone's list, former Steelers head coach Bill Cowher, isn't interested in returning to the sidelines until 2009 at the earliest.

While USC's Pete Carroll could receive serious consideration, the college ranks might not look as attractive to NFL teams after watching Nick Saban flame out in Miami and Bobby Petrino leave the Falcons after just 13 games.

It's a good thing the Buccaneers don't have to worry about competing for head coaches this offseason because they wouldn't be the only ones. Instead, the Glazers will get to spend the offseason focusing on signing Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen to contract extensions. That certainly seems like the more appealing challenge to have.

HAPPY HOLIDAYS, BUCS FANS!
On behalf of the entire Pewter Report staff, I would like to wish all of our Pewter Report readers and subscribers a safe and wonderful holiday season and 2008. There will not be a Flynn's Focus column next week, but be sure to check back with PewterReport.com on a daily basis throughout the holiday season as we cover the rest of Tampa Bay's 2007 regular season and the Buccaneers' playoff run. Happy Holidays and New Year, Bucs fans!

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