The Buccaneers are halfway through the second day of training camp, and last year's offensive strength is already flexing its muscles. In the 2007 season, Tampa Bay had the 11th-ranked rushing attack and starting running back Earnest Graham scored 10 touchdowns.
In the offseason, the Bucs further strengthened the running game when they signed center Jeff Faine, running back Warrick Dunn, and they benefited from the further maturation of the Bucs' young lineman. The team also re-signed running back Michael Bennett, who is fully comfortable in the Bucs offense after joining the team halfway through last season. Rehabbing running back Carnell "Cadillac" Williams is on the mend and could be ready for game action at some point this season.
Head coach Jon Gruden and Graham weighed in on the bolstered running game after practice.
"I think we definitely have one of the best backfields in the league right now," said Graham. "With myself, Warrick, Michael, Ken Darby, we all do different things really well. It will be interesting when Cadillac gets back in the fold. We all compliment each other well. We all have different styles. Football is a game of situations and we have a lot of guys who can excel in the different situations."
With depth of quality good backs, this may be the season that Buccaneers feature more of their "Rocket" package. That portion of the offense has been much discussed by Bucs fans over the years, but has not been featured heavily on game days.
"We can run the ball in different backfield sets," said Gruden. "We can run it from a one-back set with two tight ends, or a two-back set with two tight ends, or we can have no tight ends. We're getting a lot of guys in position to play and learn the system. But we have some very good backs, and we have a tremendous blocking fullback in B.J. Askew."
Graham, who rushed for 898 yards (4.0 avg.) in 2007, is on the same page as Gruden.
"We always have had those packages," said Graham. "We had Michael Pittman previously and some guys that can do a lot. We still do. B.J. Askew is a very versatile guy. We have some different packages that we will bring out this year."
With all the depth and talent at running back, it appears that there may not be enough touches for all of the Buccaneers running backs. Having a significant number of carries is important to Graham, and he is confident that we still get those attempts even with the presence of Dunn and Bennett.
"I think it does matter because I think I'm better as I get going," said Graham. "I'm a guy that needs touches to be effective. Whereas a guy like Michael Bennett can come in and break an 80-yard touchdown whenever he wants. I'm a guy that it takes touches for me to get involved, and the coaching staff knows that. I'm sure everything is going to be fine.
"I'm a pounder, I have that kind of attitude. I start to be more effective towards the end of the game. It takes a little while to wear down a defense, and that's when I become really effective."
While still needing a larger number of attempts to get into a groove, Graham is happy about the depth that the other backs offer to help spell him over the course of the season. Graham was asked if the addition of Dunn and the progress of Bennett would help him.
"Oh yeah, definitely. Last year I played about five or six games where I played every single snap," said Graham. "Football is a grind. It is a tough physical game. We all have to lean on each other. We all will play at different times and I think it is going to be trouble for some teams. We can go four or five backs deep and not lose a step."
Gruden is in agreement with Graham about the Buccaneers depth at running back. Depth at running back was vital to the Bucs winning their division last season. Starting running back Carnell Williams was injured in Week 4 and backup Michael Pittman was injured soon after that. Graham was the workhorse back for Tampa Bay, and this year Gruden is comfortable with his stable of backs again.
"We think Warrick is one heck of a football player and obviously Earnest Graham is no secret to anyone anymore," said Gruden. "Michael Bennett has had some great games in the NFL, so we do have three guys that can run the football and we have three guys that can catch it. That's something that also excites us. They have a lot of versatility and they can line up in a lot of different formations."
Both Dunn and Bennett have recorded 1,000 yard rushing seasons in their careers, a feat which Graham has not done yet. However, after his breakout performance in 2007, Graham was named the starting running back by Gruden when the team reported to camp on Friday.
"I was very happy," said Graham. "It was something I read about, but nothing that we talked about in the locker room. When it came time for practice I took the first reps. It felt pretty good after having been through the grind for so long, and trying to do everything right and be a team player. Getting the recognition was great, but I still have a lot of work to do. It is going to be a tough season and I still have a lot to prove.
"I still have that same mindset that I brought into the special teams: I have a lot to prove. My drive is within myself and I feel that I have a long ways to go. Last year, I starter roughly eight games, I played a lot and was hurt. I think I can do a lot better and I think have a lot more to put on film."
Russian Player Makes It To First Practice
Talk about living the American dream. Sergey Ivanov, the 81st member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and a veteran from NFL Europe, showed up for training camp on Sunday after flying in from Russia.
"I had a visa problem, so I just came from Moscow last night," Ivanov said, explaining his absence from Saturday's practices.
The 6-foot-3, 218-pound Ivanov, who will be on the Buccaneers practice squad all year due to a provision by the league office to place a foreign player on all 32 teams this season, took the field on Sunday morning and was worked into the defensive backs session immediately, catching a couple of interceptions during the ball skills drills. Naturally, Ivanov didn't see any reps in the team drills because of his lack of familiarity with the defensive playbook.
"I never thought I would be in the NFL," Ivanov said. "I'm on one of the great teams in the NFL. I'm so excited I can't believe it."
Ivanov grew up playing basketball and football in Russia, and is a Bucs fan, noting how John Lynch and Mike Alstott were his favorite players.
"I like Tampa," Ivanov said. "Our training camps in NFL Europe were in Tampa. It's a good place. I'm used to it."
Tampa is not the only Florida city Ivanov has had some exposure to. Almost a decade ago while in middle school Ivanov made a trip to Lake Buena Vista, Fla. and played football on the same field the Bucs practiced on today.
"I played Pop Warner here in 2000 at Disney's Wide World of Sports," Ivanov said. "We beat the St. Lucie [Fla.] 49ers, 28-12. We were the Moscow Patriots. It was a big game [for me]. I played D-end and had a couple of sacks."
Ivanov realizes that a training camp and some time on the Bucs practice squad is probably as close as he will get to playing in the NFL.
"This is a great experience for me," Ivanov said. "We'll see. I have to do some impossible things, some miracle, to get signed [to the active roster]."
Quote Of The Day
Bucs middle linebacker Barrett Ruud, on how does he measure himself as a linebacker:
"It is tough to say because tackles can be somewhat misleading. When I was leading the league in tackles I thought that was how you measure a linebacker, but when I had a couple of games when I had two or three tackles I was like well, we were off the field a lot. When I look at my film the next day and if I am happy with it, then that is how I judge it. I have had games when I had four tackles and I thought I played really well, and I have had games when I had 15 or 16 and thought I stunk so, when you turn the film on, that doesn't tell you any lies."
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