Setting atop the NFC South the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should be celebrating this week. But they're in Plan B mode, a popular place for the Bucs the past few years.
The season-ending injuries to Carnell Williams and Luke Petitgout have the potential to drag down what, at this moment, appears to be a potentially successful season. The Buccaneers could end up like the Philadelphia Eagles.
The Eagles were without their starting left tackle and their starting running back against the New York Giants last Sunday. Without Brian Westbrook behind Donovan McNabb, the offense sputtered. Without their starting left tackle the Eagles gave up 12 sacks, including six to Osi Umenyiora.
The Eagles' failures underscore the important of those two positions.
"Experience and production at those positions are something that every offense relies on," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.
With Williams and Petitgout the Buccaneers had not only produced a 3-1 record, but they had also produced statistically. With Petitgout acting as an anchor for a young offensive line, Jeff Garcia has been sacked just four times this season. Additionally, the Buccaneers running backs have averaged 137.0 yards per game, eighth in the NFL.
So, what happens now?
Let's start with a rumor that's making the rounds. There is talk in Minnesota, according to the Tampa Tribune, that the Vikings and the Buccaneers could be talking about a trade that would send Vikings tackle Bryant McKinnie and running back Chester Taylor to Tampa Bay.
Sounds too good to be true, right? Our NFL expert, Adam Caplan, thinks so, too.
"(It) makes no sense in that McKinnie is signed long-term for a lot of cash and he's an underachiever," Caplan said on Tuesday. "Also, the Vikings don't want to wear out Adrian Peterson so they probably won't look to deal Taylor."
McKinnie is due $3.25 million in base salary this year. Tim Yotter, our Vikings expert, told me today that McKinney is signed to a seven-year, $50 million deal and is in the second year of that deal.
But both fill critical needs for the Buccaneers. What might the Bucs have to give up? Well, Caplan and Yotter both agreed that a draft pick would likely be necessary and that wide receiver is a potential need for the Vikings.
Fourth-year receiver Michael Clayton, clearly underperforming for the Bucs this year, could be a candidate, Caplan said. Clayton is clearly frustrated by his role in Tampa Bay, even though he says all the right things when he speaks to the media. Veteran Ike Hilliard is outperforming the youngster and there's no place for Clayton in this offense right now. Plus, Clayton is cheap. He's due base salaries of $900,000 this year and $1 million next year, according to Caplan.
Again, this is all a rumor — just like the rumor the St. Paul Pioneer Press reported today in their blog that the Bucs expressed interest in third-string Vikings back Mewelde Moore.
Yotter had this to say about the Moore rumors, which were reported on both Minneapolis-area newspaper Web sites:
The Bucs reportedly rejected the Vikings' request for a first-day pick in return for Moore (he'd be worth a third-rounder if not for his contract ending after this year). Moore is a very elusive back who is every bit as good catching the ball as he is running it, and he offers some versatility returning punts as well. However, he has been injury-prone when given the opportunity to be the full-time guy.
The Bucs and Vikings would never confirm any of this on the record. But it bears watching, if only because the Bucs could use those types of players and a trade such as this would show the Bucs believe they have a chance to make more than just a postseason appearance this year. The Bucs also have the cap space to absorb both contracts. But this will probably never happen.
So back to reality.
Williams averaged 3.9 yards per carry before his injury. Ironically, he appeared to be on his way to his best day this season before the injury. He had already gained 41 yards on six carries against the porous Panthers run defense. That average was only .1 yards better than Williams' career average. His 208 yards in four games was solid, but not spectacular. But he had three touchdowns and proved to be a formidable goal-line back before the injury.
Caplan believes the Bucs will miss Williams to some degree.
"Williams offers more explosiveness, upside, and consistency than Michael Pittman and Earnest Graham," Caplan said. "Teams also have to game plan more for Williams than the other two backs in that the respect is there for what Williams offers in the running game."
Williams is certainly more explosive than either of his replacements. But consider for a moment that Williams missed the equivalent of a game the past two weeks — one quarter against the Rams and three quarters against the Panthers. Juxtapose Williams' rushing numbers against Pittman's and Graham's during those two games:
Williams — 18 carries, 89 yards.
Pittman — 22 carries, 146 yards
Graham — 25 carries, 123 yards.
Additionally, Williams averaged 4.9 yards, Pittman averaged 6.6 yards and Graham averaged 4.9 yards.
To go even more in-depth, read Ed Thompson's article on how the Bucs could compensate for the loss of Williams, thanks to the vast resources of Stats Inc.
So the running game won't miss a beat without Williams, right? Not necessarily. In those two games the Bucs faced the No. 21 run defense (Carolina) and the No. 29 run defense (Rams). It's not exactly the Minnesota Vikings, who allow about 62 rushing yards per game. The offensive line physically whipped a pair of teams that were already having difficulty stopping the run. As a result, the Bucs did what they were supposed to do.
Outside of Tennessee (No. 2) and Arizona (No. 11), the upcoming five run defenses are statistically pretty average.
But Pittman and Graham aren't as talented as Williams, or else they would be starting. Pittman is a straight-line runner who hasn't been the featured back since 2004. He had fumbling problems that year, something he's corrected. But he's a more prodigious receiver than a runner. Graham is a 5-foot-9 bowling ball of a back that has never been this relied upon in his pro career. Caplan forecasts that the pair will likely share the carries.
"Graham is probably best coming off the bench as a change of pace," Caplan said. "Pittman can handle 12-15 carries but he's not a sustaining runner like Williams. That's another problem they face — being able to put a team away with their running game consistently."
And that's where Petitgout's injury comes in.
Gruden talks about the stabilizing influence Jeff Garcia has had on the offense as a whole. But the offensive linemen talk glowingly about Petitgout's influence on them.
He's a pro's pro, they say. He has every top edge rusher's pass rush moves memorized, they say. He's an incredible mentor in the meeting room, they say.
Petitgout may not be the league's best left tackle. But he is the best left tackle the Buccaneers have had in some time. And a case could be made that his injury is more damaging to this team than Williams'.
Why? Well at least the Bucs have Pittman and Graham to replace Williams. The Bucs have Donald Penn making his first NFL start in place of Petitgout.
The 6-foot-5, 305-pound tackle from Utah State had an impressive enough training camp and preseason to force the Bucs to make him Petitgout's backup. Now he'll be blocking Indianapolis' Dwight Freeney on Sunday, unless the Bucs have a change of heart and make Anthony Davis, the starter at left tackle in 2005-06, the starter.
Penn's best asset may be his athleticism. He doesn't have the mileage or the injuries that Petitgout has. He played well in Petitgout's place against Carolina, but he wasn't asked to do that much. The Bucs mainly ran the football in that game, and an anemic Carolina pass rush made Penn look pretty good.
Gruden said on Monday that the Bucs have faith in Penn.
"Facing Dwight Freeney on the road is a little bit different experience," Gruden said. "He and Robert Mathis will be eagerly awaiting our young left tackle. We think he's shown promise. He's an athletic guy who's worked his butt off."
Penn, at least, will be able to benefit from Petitgout's mind in the meeting room. But applying that on the field may be a much different animal. Freeney is one of the NFL's quickest edge rushers and has enough veteran savvy to take advantage of the green Penn.
For these reasons, the Bucs pass protections and run production could take a hit. First, Penn will likely square off against each team's best end each week. That means Freeney this weekend. Then, after that, he'll likely face Tennessee's Kyle Vanden Bosch, Jacksonville's Reggie Hayward, Detroit's Dewayne White (a former Buc) and Arizona's Antonio Smith. Atlanta rookie Jamaal Anderson looms after the bye week.
You get the idea. Penn will likely get every team's best pass-rush scheme and he'll have to pick up his play quickly.
In run situations, the Bucs like to run to the left side. That could change a bit with Williams out, plus the continued good play of right guard Davin Joseph and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood. Penn may be a better run blocker than pass protector at this point — most young linemen are — but he'll still have to adjust to more intricate blocking schemes. These aren't the vanilla blocking schemes the Bucs employed in preseason.
The bottom line: After all the analysis, here's my take on how this might play out.
The Buccaneers running game, which has averaged 180-plus yards each of the last two games, will take a hit. It has to without Williams. But the hit doesn't have to be that severe, especially if they choose to run more to the right side behind Joseph and Trueblood. Pittman and Graham are talented and have built some confidence after two good games. To keep opposing defenses honest and from blitzing the heck out of Garcia, the pair needs to gain anywhere from 110-to-135 yards per game. The bottom end of that figure is the NFL median right now. The Bucs need to be above that to produce a run game that will average about four yards per carry, which will serve to keep defenses honest and keep the Bucs out of second-and-long and third-and-long situations.
But the progress of the offensive line really rests in the hands of Penn. He has to grow up quickly because teams will be out to exploit his inexperience. He doesn't have to be perfect. But he has to be proficient enough to keep defensive ends away from Garcia and open up holes for the backs. I expect Penn to struggle early. He has enough athletic ability to catch up, but his progress will be dependent on his confidence in himself to pick up Petitgout's slack. Expect the Bucs to help him with plenty of tight end formations that overload to the left, especially this week with Freeney on that side. That help, however, may force Gruden to use more max-protect sets than he has so far this season. Max protect means fewer receivers and less offense.
The Buccaneers do not need to win this game. But they need to perform well in the run game and at left tackle. In doing so, those performances would build confidence that the Bucs can weather this storm. If the run game struggles or Penn fails to produce, the questions about this team's ability to overcome the injuries to Williams and Petitgout will linger.
I think the run game will be productive enough. But I think Penn, predictably for a young player in a tough situation, will struggle.
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.