TAMPA — Earnest Graham isn't "Mr. August" anymore.
The fourth-year back made his pitch for more playing time with two game-icing, fourth-quarter touchdown runs in Tampa Bay's 24-3 victory over St. Louis at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday.
Graham finished the contest with 75 yards on eight carries, and touchdown runs of 8 and 28 yards as he and the Buccaneers (2-1) offensive line hammered out a second straight win and no worst than a tie for first place in the NFC South entering next Sunday's crucial contest at Carolina.
Graham's touchdowns were important on two levels. While they were the first regular-season scores of his NFL career, they also allowed the Buccaneers to control the final quarter without running back Cadillac Williams, who was on the bench.
If it felt like validation for four years of playing special teams and watching other backs get their opportunities to shine, Graham didn't let on.
"I've been playing a lot of special teams," Graham said of the best day of his NFL career. "Then I just came in. Then it just so happened that (head coach Jon) Gruden let me run the ball."
Gruden knew Graham could run the football. The sixth-year coach dubbed Graham "Mr. August" in 2005 for the Cape Coral Mariner product's prodigious production in the preseason. He led the Bucs in preseason rushing for three straight seasons (2004-06) and has seven career preseason touchdowns.
But Graham still needed two years to make the 53-man roster, and his annual battle to keep his job makes headlines every training camp.
Now Gruden has a new problem — finding more touches for the 5-foot-9, 229-pound back that quarterback Jeff Garcia said is "always moving forward."
"The big question is why in the heck hasn't he been playing," Gruden asked rhetorically.
Gruden knew why — there is only one football and Williams sees the bulk of the carries. Graham is there to block for kick returners and protect punters.
But Williams' conspicuous absence in the fourth quarter opened the door for Graham. Williams rushed for 46 yards on 12 carries, including a 7-yard touchdown run with 10:41 remaining in the third quarter to give Tampa Bay a 10-0 lead.
On the next possession Williams fell on his back after a 2-yard gain. He seemed to aggravate the bruised ribs he suffered in the season opener. He left for two plays but returned the following drive.
On the first play of that drive, Williams fumbled and the Rams recovered at the Bucs 33. The turnover led to a 25-yard field goal by Rams kicker Jeff Wilkins — and a seat on the bench for Williams.
"I was frustrated — I admit it," Williams said. "But I'm real happy for Earnest."
Gruden said both the injury and the fumble played a role.
"Obviously Carnell had the fumble and I talked to (head athletic trainer) Todd Toriscelli, (and) I felt to a degree that maybe he got nicked up a little bit," Gruden said. "We had the fumble and I decided that it was best to give Earnest Graham an opportunity."
Finally. After four years and just 57 regular-season carries for 228 yards, Graham finally had his chance.
"It's been a wait," Graham said. "Eventually you want to get in and get some yards. But we had a lot of other guys. So I always just focused on my effort. I understood."
"There's only one football," Gruden said.
And Graham handled that football for most of the fourth quarter.
Garcia set up Graham's first score with three precise completions to Ike Hilliard (17 yards) and Michael Pittman (16 and 15 yards) as the Bucs moved to the Rams 28. Then Graham and the offensive line, led by right guard Davin Joseph, plowed ahead 20 yards to the Rams 8.
For Graham, the next carry proved sweeter than any preseason score, as he swept in behind Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood for an 8-yard touchdown run with 8:03 remaining to make it 17-3.
The score had personal importance to Graham — but apparently not enough for Graham to keep the football. Wide receiver Joey Galloway collected both touchdown balls for him.
Graham's first touchdown run dictated the game plan for the rest of the contest.
"After that, there wasn't a lot of smoke and mirrors, it was pretty much … the running game," Gruden said.
After the Bucs defense — which only allowed 245 yards and picked off three Marc Bulger passes — forced a punt, Graham went to work again, scoring on a 28-yard blast up the middle in which Graham stiff-armed Rams safety Corey Chavous for about five yards.
But Graham perhaps did his best work on the punt return. Yes, he still played special teams, and he made the block that sprung Mark Jones' career-long 35-yard return to the Rams 40.
He seemed more proud of that block than of his two scores.
"He helps me a whole lot," Jones said. "I didn't know who it was. I just heard it (the block). It was that loud."
Loud might describe Graham's arrival as a more important member of this backfield.
"Obviously, now we have to put our minds together and figure out how to get Earnest more involved because he's clearly deserving of the football — and that's a good problem to have," Gruden said.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1490-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.