Tampa Bay's upcoming game vs. the 2-0 New York Giants is big for the 0-2 Buccaneers, especially running back Derrick Ward.
Ward, who originally entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent with the New York Jets in 2003, spent five seasons (2004-08) with the Giants before signing with the Bucs as a free agent during the offseason.
The 5-foot-11, 228-pound Ward rushed for just 123 yards (3.5 avg.) in his first three seasons with the Giants, but finished his career in New York strong, rushing for 1,627 yards (5.2 avg.) and scoring five touchdowns while hauling in 67 passes for 563 yards and another score from 2007-08.
In fact, Ward and Giants RB Brandon Jacobs each rushed for over 1,000 yards last season, which is a rare feat in the NFL.
While he has fond memories of his playing days in New York, Ward is happy to be in Tampa Bay.
"I'm excited, but I'm trying to treat it like any other game," said Ward. "Of course there's a little more emphasis on it since I'm facing some of my former teammates and coaches. It will be fun to play against those guys. I'm a Buc now."
The Bucs have the fourth-ranked offense in the NFL, and Ward has been a significant part of that success, carrying the ball 21 times for 94 yards (4.5 avg.) and one touchdown. He's also caught three passes for 26 yards through two regular season games.
After rushing for over 170 yards in Week 1, Tampa Bay struggled via the ground game in Buffalo, producing just 57 yards.
New York's defense might just be what the doctor ordered for Tampa Bay's ground attack. The Giants defense currently ranks 27th in the NFL, allowing opponents to rush for an average of 168 yards per game this season.
Ward is familiar with the type of defense the Giants play, but he also knows how well that group is capable of playing on any given Sunday.
"It's going to be strange going up against those guys," said Ward. "But it's football and guys switch teams every year. I'm happy to be here, and I'll be even happier to get this first win out of the way."
Ward obviously is familiar with New York's offense as well. He and Jacobs are close friends and talk almost every day. The 6-foot-4, 264-pound Jacobs produced two straight 1,000-yard seasons heading in to 2009, but is averaging just 3.3 yards per carry this year.
Is it any coincidence that the Giants ground game has struggled this season, and Ward is no longer part of a talented trio of running backs in New York that was once made up of he Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw?
"Earth, Wind and Fire broke up. You can't produce like that anymore," Ward said jokingly, referring to the nickname the Giants running backs had when he was in New York. "Everybody knows they're a running team, just like everybody knows we're a run-first team. It just so happens that they haven't hit the ground running yet. It's only Week 2, though. They'll get it together."
The Bucs are leaning on Ward's familiarity with the Giants in an attempt to ascertain some information and gain an advantage on Sunday.
To what extent Ward is helping the Bucs remains a mystery, as the team has been tightlipped regarding that particular topic this week.
"Any time you have somebody that is sharp as Derrick and had been in the other organization, that's always a help," said Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates. "We cant' get in to all the details as far as talking about all the ways he can help us."
Added Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes: "I haven't even talked to Derrick Ward yet. But even if I did I couldn't tell anybody. We have to keep that to ourselves."
When asked what he could do to help the Bucs gain an advantage, Ward began to elaborate, but stopped short of sharing all of Tampa Bay's game plan for Sunday's game.
"I know the calls they had last year, but I don't know whether or not they changed some of those calls," Ward said of the Giants. "They could have tweaked some things or went with a whole new calling system. It's football. They have to adjust to what we're going to do, and we're going to adjust to what they do. We'll go from there."
The Bucs likely will attempt to run the ball early and often vs. the Giants due to New York's run defense woes over the first two weeks of the season.
However, which player winds up carrying the ball for the Bucs remains in question due to the fact that Bucs running backs Cadillac Williams (knee), Earnest Graham (hamstring) and Clifton Smith (quad) are each nursing minor injuries heading into Sunday's game.
While Morris suggested Thursday that the plan is to go with the normal 2-2-1 running back rotation, Ward said he was prepared to carry the load for the running game if needed, whether it's against his former team or not.
"I'm always prepared to play the whole game," said Ward. "I prepare myself every week and every practice as if I'm not going to come off the field. I'm used to playing 40, 50 or 60 snaps a game. I did that last year splitting carries with Brandon Jacobs. That's the way I prepare myself.
"I'm just trying to help our team win its first game. I don't care if I score a touchdown or if someone else does it. Whatever I can do help this team win, that's what I'm going to do."