Tampa Bay looked like a team that would pound away with the running game after the first four games of this season. Only now, a month after losing two of its top running backs, does it appear to be regaining ground.
The Buccaneers (4-4) enter Sunday's game against Arizona with an offense that has skewed toward the pass the previous four games. The Buccaneers did so for good reason. They would much rather have put the game in the hands of veteran quarterback Jeff Garcia than put too much pressure on third-string running back Earnest Graham, who has started the last three games.
But if the previous two games are an indication, the Bucs ground game may be rising from its nadir of four weeks ago, when it gained only 17 yards against Indianapolis.
"What we do in our room is say, ‘It doesn't matter (who runs the ball).' We've felt that way from Day 1," Bucs running backs coach Art Valero said.
Before the Buccaneers lost running back Carnell Williams and left tackle Luke Petitgout for the season against Carolina on Sept. 30, the ground game grew into a dominant force. The Bucs gained 4.24 yards per attempt and scored seven touchdowns. Thanks to that, the passing game actually took a back seat, as the Bucs ran the ball nearly 58 percent of the time.
But when the Bucs lost Williams and Petitgout — and Michael Pittman midway through the Indianapolis game on Oct. 7 — that ratio flipped. Head coach Jon Gruden put more emphasis on the pass, resulting in Tampa Bay throwing the football 65 percent of the time the past four games.
Tampa Bay's record also flipped — from 3-1 in the first four games to 1-3 in the past four games.
Graham, Valero and new running back Michael Bennett all agreed that two major factors were at work, aside from adjusting to a brand-new backfield — the run defenses they've faced the past four games were very good and the Bucs fell behind early in three of those games.
"At one point we got behind (last week) and we threw the ball well and got back into the game," Graham said. "Then they (Jacksonville) got ahead. Passing was our best option."
Indianapolis (tied for 13th), Tennessee (1st) and Jacksonville (tied for 15th) all rank in the top half of the NFL in rushing defense, and represent three of Tampa Bay's last four opponents. After the Bucs gained just 17 rushing yards against Indianapolis, they followed that with a 30-yard performance against Tennessee in a 13-10 victory.
A day later, the Bucs traded for Bennett.
"Most teams around the league are built to be aggressive and stop the run," Graham said. "We feel we're good enough to make some plays."
Looking at the past four games, that doesn't bear out. Since losing Williams and Pittman, the Bucs have averaged 3.98 yards per attempt and scored just once on the ground.
But Valero is still encouraged, and by breaking down the past two games there's evidence.
Tampa Bay has rushed for 260 yards the past two games on just 50 carries, a 5.2-yard average. Bennett's touchdown last week, a 19-yarder, was the team's first rushing score since Graham's 1-yarder against Carolina, a span of 17 quarters.
Graham throttled the Detroit Lions for nearly 200 yards of total offense two weeks ago, including 92 yards on the ground. Bennett came within a yard of scoring his first Bucs touchdown against the Lions.
And against Jacksonville — which featured one of the league's best front fours — the Bucs rushed for 136 yards, their most rushing yards since that day in Carolina.
Still, the Bucs went 0-2 the past two games because their offense turned the ball over five times.
"If we hit a couple of plays here or there, I don't think anybody's talking about the running game," Graham said. "I think the game plan the past couple of weeks has been good."
There may be more encouraging signs around the corner. Pittman, who suffered that high ankle sprain against the Colts, appears to be walking normally now. He's participating in practice this week, albeit in a limited fashion, and if he doesn't play Sunday he should be on target to return against Atlanta on Nov. 18.
Valero also believes the Bucs' young offensive line is showing signs of coming around. Four of the five starters have less than two years of NFL experience, and the left side — tackle Donald Penn and guard Arron Sears — are first-year starters. Penn took over for Petitgout after the Carolina game.
And much of the improvement the line has made isn't visible to the layperson's eye on gameday, he said.
"In terms of the communication and the power in which they play, with (center) John Wade conducting everything in the middle, it's been great," Valero said. "They've seen some really unorthodox looks lately, so maybe it's taken a snap to adjust, or they've been just a hair late (on a play). But they're playing fast and with great effort and that's all you ask for."
Finally, there's the upcoming schedule. Of Tampa Bay's final eight opponents, only two — Washington (90.9 yards) and New Orleans (98.1 yards) — allow fewer than 100 yards rushing per game. The Bucs conclude their stretch run with games against Houston, Atlanta, San Francisco and Carolina, all of which are ranked 19th or worse against the run.
So even though the Buccaneers aren't scoring on the ground at the pace they were in the season's first four weeks, Valero doesn't seem concerned. Neither do Bennett or Graham.
They all believe the opportunities will eventually come.
"The key thing we have to do is make plays to get down there in the red zone and once we do that we'll have more than enough opportunities to make plays and score touchdowns," Valero said.
DOING THE MATH
The breakdown of the Buccaneers' running game this season:
FIRST FOUR GAMES
129 attempts, 548 rushing yards, 4.24 yards per attempt, 7 touchdowns (Bucs attempted 94 pass plays and went 3-1).
LAST FOUR GAMES
77 attempts, 307 rushing yards, 3.98 yards per attempt, 1 touchdown (Bucs attempted 144 pass plays and went 1-3).
LAST TWO GAMES
50 attempts, 260 rushing yards, 5.2 yards per attempt, 1 touchdown (Bucs attempted 86 pass plays and went 0-2).
Want to read more of my interview with Bucs running backs coach Art Valero? Click here for our exclusive "Press Pass" feature on Valero. He went into further depth on the ground game, Earnest Graham and Arron Sears.
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.