After recording consecutive 180-yard plus rushing performances in wins over Carolina and St. Louis, the Bucs running game has struggled to get anything going in the last two weeks. With injuries to running backs Michael Pittman (ankle) and Carnell "Cadillac" Williams (knee), Tampa Bay is running out of players and is down to running back Earnest Graham as the starter.
Graham was less than stellar in his first NFL start vs. the Titans on Sunday, gaining 29 yards on 13 carries. Bucs running backs have gained 39 yards combined on the ground in the last two games, which is an average of less than 20 yards a game. Tampa Bay, which is 4-2 on the season and in first place in the NFC South division, can't continue to struggle in the running game and expect to keep racking up wins the rest of the season.
"We've had some good days running the ball and we've had some days that weren't so good, especially the last couple outings," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "But situationally we haven't given our runners the opportunities that we did earlier in the season. We were way behind in Indianapolis and we were in a throw-it mentality. You've got to recall we only had 40 snaps of offense. When you're down by two or three scores, you're throwing it, trying to catch up. Yesterday, we didn't have much success running the ball. We didn't have it a lot, and we felt the best way to win the game was to throw. We knew we could have success throwing the football and we tried to put [quarterback] Jeff Garcia in position to make some plays."
The Titans came into Sunday's contest with the No. 3-ranked run defense in the NFL so the Bucs knew it was going to be tough to run the ball. However, Graham's longest carry of the game was a 10-yard flip play where he had to shake Tennessee cornerback Nick Harper. There were very few holes for Graham to run through, which has become an unsettling trend for Bucs running backs in the last two games.
"This is the NFL and it's a copycat league," Graham said. "Once one team has success against you your next opponent will go back and watch the film and try to do the same thing. Tennessee did a lot of the same things Indianapolis did. That's just how it is in the NFL. We have to go to the tape and look at what people are doing and make some corrections and improve. You have to week to week. That's one of the reasons why you see some teams go on a winning streak and then go on a slide. It's because teams make adjustments. We have to go back and see what we did and improve on it. Otherwise, it's going to continue, and we can't have that happen."
The Bucs have been rumored to be looking for a running back in a trade ever since Williams was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon in his right knee. Free-agent running back Corey Dillon wasn't interested in coming out of retirement to play for the Bucs and Tampa Bay has inquired about possibly trading for Minnesota running back Mewelde Moore and San Diego running back Michael Turner.
It was reported by ESPN that the Bucs had offered a sixth-round pick in 2008 to the Vikings for Moore. However, sources informed PewterReport.com that Tampa Bay only inquired about the availability of Moore and never offered compensation in their discussion.
The trade deadline is Tuesday, so the Bucs don't have much time if they are going to make a trade.
"We are certainly investigating the possibility of a trade and, again, it takes two to tango," Gruden said. "So the trade deadline, they tell me, is approaching us so we should know something soon."
Tampa Bay brought in fullback Zack Crockett last week and has entertained the idea of using fullback B.J. Askew at the running back position. Askew did not get any carries on Sunday vs. the Titans, but did have three receptions for 33 yards. Running back Lionel Gates was activated to the Bucs roster for Sunday's game, but had no carries vs. the Titans.
"We did that last week in practice and that was a contingency plan honestly more than it was a priority plan," Gruden said. "B.J. has been ball-handling, Zack Crockett has been ball-handling and if need be we will use those guys. Yesterday, Earnest Graham was certainly the guy that we wanted to go wire-to-wire with and that's what we did."
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