After watching rookie running back Carnell “Cadillac” Williams ignite Tampa Bay’s offense during the first quarter of the 2005 regular season, Bucs head coach Jon Gruden has watched his team’s ground attack come to a sudden halt.

Over their last two games, the Bucs have rushed for just 87 yards on a total of 38 carries (2.2 avg.), including 44 yards on 18 carries vs. the Panthers’ No. 2-ranked run defense on Sunday.

Although he is no longer listed on the injury report and back in action, Williams has struggled, carrying the ball 24 times for 48 yards (2.0 avg.) over the last two games, both of which were losses for the Bucs.

While Williams has been slow to get back into a groove after missing two straight games with a foot/hamstring injury earlier in the season, Gruden suggested the team’s offensive line needed to do a better job of opening up running lanes for the rookie rusher.

“I think he’s a pretty good player right now,” Gruden said of Cadillac. “We’ve obviously got to get him some looks at the hole clean. We’ve got eight games left. I talk to the trainer every day. I do have limited conversations with Carnell; that’s the way he likes it. I’m sure you’ve found that out yourself. I can’t stand up here and make excuses. The guy’s going to be a little sore, he’s probably not going to be 100 percent through the rest of this year, but who is? Who is? We’ve got to lean on him, and if we need to help him with Earnest [Graham] and Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott, by God we’ll do that. We’re going to find a way to get the running game going, and that’s the great thing about going back to work here. We’ve got a chance to prove it.”

Earlier in the season, Tampa Bay was ranked in the top five in rushing offense, but the Bucs have since tumbled to No. 16 in that department. If the Bucs are to improve their running game, they’ll need the player that helped ignite the team’s offense to get back on track, and in a hurry.

“The guy in the first three weeks of the season was enshrined in the Hall of Fame,” Gruden said of Williams. “So, we did get off to a pretty good start, seems like so long ago. He’s getting better. He’s getting better. He had some nice inside runs yesterday. What can I say? We need him to return to health. He might not completely be there at this time, but he is getting better. He is showing dramatic improvement from where he has been. And he’s another guy that we need to clearly get going here in the last half of the season.”

One player the Bucs will consider getting more involved in the offense is fullback Mike Alstott, who has seen a limited amount of touches this season, carrying the ball 11 times for 32 yards (3.2 avg.) and two touchdowns and catching 13 passes for 104 yards through eight games.

On Sunday, Alstott touched the ball three times and produced two first downs on two receptions and a touchdown on a 1-yard run in the fourth quarter.

Although his original plan was to use Alstott primarily as a lead blocker, Gruden suggested Monday that the “A-Train’s” role as a ball carrier could expand over the second half of the season.

“He’s having a great year as a fullback and obviously you see him catch the ball and do what he did yesterday after the catch, you realize he can still play at a high level,” said Gruden. “If we need to get him more involved as a ball-carrier, we will do that. But, we like what he’s doing as a fullback and that’s all I can say.”

Tampa Bay’s young offensive line has struggled in the running game since losing starting quarterback Brian Griese (torn knee ligaments) for the season. The Bucs have failed to rush for over 100 yards and have allowed a total of 10 sacks in their two games without Griese.

The Bucs expect to see plenty of eight-man fronts until QB Chris Simms and Co. show they can make defenses pay for brining loaded fronts.

“Until we prove that we can recognize and take care of all the business that needs to be taken care of we’re going to continue to see safety and linebacker blitzes and overload dogs repeatedly,” said Gruden. “That’s going around football right now. A lot of teams are getting it, a lot of teams employ that, and it certainly is a challenge.

“Well, we’ve had some good days, we’ve had some tough days. And I see a lot of that on tape these days from every offensive line that I study. We took a step backwards yesterday in some areas. A lot of it had to do with the way Carolina played. They came in here and played a tremendous physical football game up front. You got a lot of pride in that room. Guys are working very hard and we’re seeing some guys get better. But at the same time, we all realize that we have a ways to go to get it to where we want it to be.”

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