TAMPA — The Buccaneers made the commitment at halftime. They would run the football. And Earnest Graham would carry the load.
By the end of the game, Graham, the Cape Coral-Mariner product, had his first career 100-yard rushing game and the Buccaneers snapped their two-game losing streak with a 17-10 victory over Arizona at Raymond James Stadium.
Tampa Bay's victory (5-4), coupled with Carolina's loss (4-4) catapulted the Bucs back into first place in the NFC South. New Orleans (4-4) is also half-a-game back of the Buccaneers.
But Graham's 34-carry, 124-yard day — the first 100-yard rushing game by a Buc since Carnell Williams did it against New Orleans on Oct. 8, 2006 — fueled the victory. Not bad for a guy who started the season as the third-string running back.
"We felt at halftime we had to run the football and (we said to) Earnest, ‘You have to do it,'" Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said.
Tampa Bay went to the run because Arizona (3-5) got away from its more exotic pass rush schemes after Bucs quarterback Jeff Garcia burned them for a 37-yard touchdown pass to Joey Galloway with 5:56 left in the first quarter. At that point, the Cardinals started using more three-man rushes and multiple maximum zones, Gruden said.
So the Bucs chose to use Graham as their battering ram in the second half. With Michael Pittman still out and Michael Bennett still not quite fully versed in the offense, Graham had no choice. He already had 64 yards by halftime. And the Bucs wanted more.
"It wasn't a secret," Graham said. "We knew we were going to run the ball and try to take some minutes off the clock. Coach (Gruden) told me to get ready to get the ball."
Tampa Bay had the football to open the third quarter. The Bucs fed Graham on the first three plays of the drive, as he gained 8, 1 and 5 yards. He eventually capped the drive with a 2-yard touchdown run with 10:41 left to give the Bucs a 17-3 lead.
On the next drive, Graham carried eight times for 20 yards, and chipped in a couple of important catches to convert a first down in Cardinals territory.
Even though the Bucs failed to score on the drive — Matt Bryant missed a 26-yard field goal — the tone was set. By the end of the game, the Bucs owned time of possession by a 43:07 to 16:53 margin, their best ratio this season.
"It doesn't look pretty," Garcia said. "I wish this game could have looked more dominating on our end. But this is the NFL. Nothing comes easy."
The performance was reminiscent of their back-to-back contests against St. Louis and Carolina earlier this season, in which the Bucs rushed for more than 180 yards in each of those games. Tampa Bay rushed for 162 yards, the third straight week their rushing totals have improved.
"That was our best defensive play today — our offense," safety Jermaine Phillips, who ended the Cardinals' hopes of a comeback with a late interception, said. "The way they controlled the ball, it was great. I said, ‘Man, are we (the defense) playing today or what?'"
Graham's workload was Herculian when compared to the 52 career carries he had entering this regular season. The 5-foot-9 back, who admits he's "barely" that tall, simply took what the defense gave him all afternoon. His longest run was only 15 yards.
"The thing about him is he never argues," Bucs right guard Davin Joseph said. "He just runs. He stays quiet and runs. He runs hard. That's all you can ask from a guy. Some backs they complain about blocks and all that stuff, but he doesn't complain. He doesn't complain about getting hit, he doesn't complain about not getting the ball. He just does what he does."
After the upcoming bye week, Graham should get some help. Bennett will have an extra week to learn more of the playbook. Pittman should also be ready to go. Gruden said Pittman was nearly able to play on Sunday.
Graham's performance overshadowed what the defense did on Sunday in its limited time on the field. The Buccaneers limited the Cardinals to 195 net yards, their best performance this season. They allowed former Immokalee back Edgerrin James only 15 yards rushing, though he had a late touchdown.
Quarterback Kurt Warner was out of rhythm all afternoon, thanks to a solid pass rush and stellar play by the Bucs secondary. He went just 10-of-30 for 172 yards and two interceptions by Phillips and Tanard Jackson. Jackson's pick led to Matt Bryant's 32-yard field goal.
But Graham will dominate the headlines today and after four years of waiting in the wings, that's probably how it should be.
"You definitely want to know what you can do at this level," Graham said. "You want the opportunity. As a kid you grow up watching your favorite backs go big in huge games, get a bunch of carries, make tough runs. It was good tonight to have a big day in a much-needed victory. It feels great."
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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.