Tampa Bay Buccaneers tight end John Gilmore hasn't taken long to prove that he was a good free agent signee for the Bucs, and running back Earnest Graham has proven that last year was no fluke and he was worth the contract extension he received in the offseason. Head coach Jon Gruden had a lot of compliments for both players after reviewing the game tape from Sunday's 24-9 victory over Atlanta.
"[Graham] had a 46-yard run in New Orleans and he had a 68-yard run yesterday," Gruden said. "I thought yesterday's game was unique from the standpoint that Michael Turner and Earnest Graham are two great backs that weren't picked in the draft as high as maybe they should have been – probably because of their straight-line 40-yard dash time that they ran at the Combine. Both of those guys are great backs. We're proud of Earnest and what he does as a receiver and what he does as a runner and as a protector. He's unselfish and he's cheering just as hard for Warrick Dunn as he is himself. He's off to a great start.
"I thought Gilmore did good. He ran a nice route in the red zone and he caught a touchdown – his first as a Tampa Bay Buc. He got free down the middle. I think it was his longest catch of his career. There were some great things as a receiver that showed up on the stat sheet, but as always, there are a lot of things he does on the line of scrimmage that are as good as that. He's a good football player and a great team guy. We're proud of him."
Both Graham and Gilmore have played integral roles in the offense's rushing and passing attack. Aside from leading the team in rushing, Graham has contributed to the passing game in blocking protection and as a receiver. Gilmore was known mainly as a blocking tight end, but caught a touchdown and hauled in the longest pass that Tampa Bay has thrown this season with his 36-yard reception in the fourth quarter against Atlanta. The unselfish Gilmore enjoyed being used in the passing attack, but spoke with the most enthusiasm when discussing the Bucs leading tailback.
"Earnest Graham is a beast, isn't he? Oh my God that guy can run," said Gilmore. "I almost got caught up in it a couple of times during the game just watching him and then I think, ‘Oh let me block for him.' I told him after the game that I'm going to have a lot of fun blocking for him throughout the season. Hopefully we can get him out just this week. Then you bring in Warrick and he's so shifty. Our running backs, there's not another group of running backs in the league like them, so as an offensive line you have to take pride in going out there and getting those guys some numbers because they have the ability to do it."
Graham was quick to credit his long runs to the blocking he has been getting from his Bucs teammates.
"I'm just making a play, but I've had good blocking up front," said Graham. "I just hit the hole and got out the first 40 and had to fight on the last 30. It was pretty much what it was. Definitely, we wanted to get some (long runs). Last offseason we said there weren't enough explosive plays from the run game. We have two so far that were both longer than my longest run from last year, so it is a good start."
Graham had a big game against Atlanta, rushing the ball 15 times for 116 yards and a touchdown. He also caught one pass for 12 yards. Thus far through two games Graham has rushed for 207 yards on 25 carries (8.3 average) with the one touchdown. Fellow running back Warrick Dunn also ran for a touchdown as the Bucs continued their effective ground game from Week 1 against New Orleans. Tampa Bay is eighth in rushing in the NFL, averaging 155 yards per game.
"As you saw yesterday there were several times when [Graham and Dunn] were in there together," said Gruden. "They have very good stamina and they're both excellent receivers. I think both of them are more physical players than people realize. We did creatively get them on the field together for six or seven snaps."
With Dunn and Graham finding the end zone against Atlanta, Gilmore can plan on his blocking skills being utilized often over the course of the season.
"I don't mind banging heads. Especially with four minutes left in the game," said Gilmore. "You have to get a little bit of a swagger about yourself, and want to go out there and finish and put guys away. A lot of tight ends in this league, [the defense] doesn't expect them to be able to block, so when you go up against those defensive ends that aren't expecting much, but you go ahead and produce, it is a great feeling."
This Sunday will be a special game for Gilmore playing against his former team. Gilmore was originally drafted by the New Orleans Saints in the sixth-round of the 2002 draft. He was released at the end of training camp and quickly was signed by Chicago.
"This is my first time going against a ball club that I used to play for," said Gilmore. "I'm pretty excited about it, needless to say. I'll put in my work this week, and focus on them. Their defense is pretty similar to ours. They fly to the ball. We got our work cut out for us. It'll be a good game.
"I spent six years up there. I put in good time in Chicago and I definitely look forward to going back there and seeing some of the guys. A win would be nice."
Both players will be counted on to continue their success this Sunday in Chicago. The Bears have had a tough defense for years and are currently eighth in the NFL after two games. Chicago has a balanced defense, ranking eighth against the run and 13th against the pass. They play a version of the Tampa 2 defense that the Bucs run. Bears head coach Lovie Smith was the linebackers coach for former head coach Tony Dungy and left after the 2000 season to become the defensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams. After catching a touchdown and a 36-yard pass, Gilmore may have to be game-planned for by his former teammates.
"No I hope they don't," said Gilmore laughing. "I really don't. We'll see what happens. Our offense is so complex that if you're not going to account for somebody I might be that guy. If that is the case then you might catch one down the seam every now and then, which I'll take. It'll be interesting to see what kind of game plan they put together. Again their defense is very similar to ours, and they are fly fast to the ball type guys.
"They definitely have a good linebacking corps, that is no secret. I'm happy I'm not the guy that has to do the game plan. Coach Gruden game plans like nobody I've ever seen before. If anybody knows how to do it, it is him. Griese is familiar with the defense, which is a plus. We definitely have some things that we need to work on as an offense. We definitely have to bring our A game. There are just some things I think we should get better on in the run game."
While Gilmore was underutilized in his time in Chicago, he does not have any ill will to his former team.
"Chicago knew what I was capable of doing," said Gilmore. "It was just that I was never put in those positions on the field. They had a guy, Desmond Clark, who is a great receiving tight end. I've seen Dez develop his blocking in the run game. I think I can't say enough about how I feel about him as a complete tight end. Then they drafted Greg Olsen obviously last year, and naturally expected him to pick up a lot of work in the passing game. So that put me as the third tight end which was like ‘get in there and block.' I embraced my role did what I had to do and that was that. I think my season high for catches was 10 or 13 catches as a rookie. I ended up starting as rookie last four or five games of the season. I'm starting to get that feeling back, even with two catches in a game. Once you get that feeling going you want more."
Graham can relate to making the most of an opportunity. He was a third-string running back for years before injuries gave him the chance to be a workhorse back in 2007. Both Graham and Gilmore have had a blue-collar mentality as football players in their career. Even though both received pay increases in their new contracts that they signed in the offseason, and they are playing a much higher number of snaps, their mentality hasn't changed.
"It was always football to me," said Graham. "Contract or no contract. I'm going to concentrate on my effort. Football is a game I love and am passionate about. I've been playing for 20 years now, so it is not about money and that is not the way in which I approach the game. It is just football."