After working through several weeks with a thin backfield due to injuries, Tampa Bay's running game likely will receive some much-needed depth this week with the expected return of Michael Pittman.
Pittman suffered a severe ankle sprain in Week 5 against the Indianapolis Colts. Not only did Tampa Bay lose to Indianapolis, 33-14, the Bucs also lost Pittman for what was believed to be six to eight weeks.
Complicating matters was the fact that the Bucs placed fullback Mike Alstott on injured reserve with a neck injury in training camp and lost RB Carnell "Cadillac" Williams for the season due to a torn patellar tendon he sustained the week before Pittman's injury in a game against Carolina.
Despite the fact that Tampa Bay lost its top two running backs to their respective injuries, the Bucs were able to avoid becoming a one-dimensional offense thanks to third-string RB Earnest Graham.
Graham, who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent out of Florida in 2003, has carried the ball 116 times for 454 yards (3.9 avg.) and four touchdowns in 2007. He's also hauled in 26 passes for 176 yards this season, which has been his first as a regular contributor on offense.
As a result of Graham's play, Tampa Bay's running game currently ranks 15th in the NFL, averaging 113 yards per game. To put that feat in perspective, the highest the Bucs' running game ever finished a season ranked under head coach Jon Gruden was 14th, which came in Williams' rookie season in 2005.
After missing just four regular season games with the ankle sprain, it looks like Pittman should be able to return to action this Sunday for Tampa Bay's game at Atlanta, although he and several other Bucs players were limited in practice on Wednesday.
While Pittman's return would mean less work for Graham, it doesn't mean the Bucs would have a new starting running back.
Graham still is expected to be Tampa Bay's primary running back, but the Bucs will have more flexibility at the running back position with the return of Pittman and the progression of Michael Bennett, who landed in Tampa Bay via a trade with Kansas City in Week 8.
"It gives us a lot of options, especially with the speed of Michael Bennett and the versatility of Michael Pittman," said Graham. "I feel like I'm running the ball well right now, so I think it gives us a lot of versatility. It will be hard for teams to prepare for that."
After carrying the ball just 52 times for 215 yards (4.1 avg.) during his first three seasons as a Buccaneer, Graham welcomes a heavy workload in Tampa Bay's offense.
However, he is also looking forward to getting a breather when he needs one now that it looks like the Bucs will have another capable running back in Pittman, who rushed 35 times for 169 yards (4.8 avg.) before being sidelined by the ankle injury, back from his injury.
"It's a physical game and we have a lot of season left as we try to make a push for the playoffs," said Graham. "It's going to help a lot not taking 75 plays per game. Having Mike Pittman back and Michael Bennett is up to speed now, so I think it's going to help."
Pittman had missed just three regular season games over the past five seasons (2002-06) before missing four contests this year with the ankle ailment.
“We’ve had Mike going on six years and this is the first time he’s had a prolonged injury,” said Gruden. “It's been tough for him. If he can play he’ll play."
That made it quite difficult for Pittman to be a spectator for Tampa Bay's games vs. Indianapolis, Tennessee, Jacksonville and Arizona, a stretch where the Bucs went 2-2.
"It's been very hard for me," said Pittman. "When I first got hurt [and did not make the trip to Detroit] I was watching the game from the couch and not the sideline. It was really difficult. I felt like I was about to play [against Tennessee]. I was sweating on the couch. I'm happy I'm back. I told Coach Gruden I would be back early. Nobody is 100 percent healthy this time of year, but the only thing I will have to fight through are some setbacks. Hopefully I don't have any, but I'm going to go out there and do what I have to do to help this team win."
Pittman isn't sure how much playing time he'll receive on offense initially, but he's looking forward to helping the 5-4 Bucs remain atop the NFC South division and earn a playoff berth.
"I have no expectations," said Pittman. "Coach Gruden told me he was going to throw me into the fire and that I should be prepared for a big game. I don't know how many carries or touches I will receive. Whenever I touch the ball I want to make a play and help this team win."
Although he does have some kickoff return experience, Pittman doesn't expect to handle those duties if he does in fact play against Atlanta. However, Pittman's return and role in Tampa Bay's offense might allow Graham to return to special teams, where he has been missed over the past several weeks.
"Oh yeah. I will definitely go back [on special teams] and help where I can," said Graham. "I don't know that I'll play special teams as much, but I love it."
Graham notched 38 special teams tackles from 2005-06 and had two takedowns this season before taking on a bigger role in Tampa Bay's offense.
That's a role Gruden would like to continue to build on, not begin to limit.
“Earnest Graham all-purpose yardage-wise has to be one of the top three or four yardage-gainers in football,” said Gruden. “And that’s all he’s played. He’s only started [four] games. So if you ask me let’s find more ways to get Earnest Graham the ball. As Bennett picks things up and shows that he deserves to play he’ll play. But we’re anxious to get Pittman back and we hope to see a lot more from Earnest Graham in terms of what he’s shown he can do.”
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