Pittman returns to different running attack

Michael Pittman is expected to return this week to support Earnest Graham and Michael Bennett. Just how much playing time Pittman will get is unclear. But the Bucs will be sure to use him plenty. Find out how the run game has progressed in Pittman's absence, and how Pittman's return benefits the other backs, in this premium article.

The Joker returns this Sunday.

No, it's not a bad "Batman" sequel. It's Tampa Bay running back Michael Pittman, who is expected to play for the first time since Oct. 7 when the Buccaneers take on Atlanta on Sunday.

Bucs head coach Jon Gruden calls Pittman a "joker," his designation for a player that can be used in plenty of different ways. Veteran teammates like Jeff Garcia and Earnest Graham are anxious for his return.

"Pitt is such an important catalyst to that backfield," Garcia said. "His understanding of our protection schemes, his ability to catch the ball, the way he runs the football physically. He's a great energy boost to our offense."

When Pittman left the Indianapolis game with a high ankle sprain, there was plenty of uncertainty surrounding the running game. Specifically, Graham, a third-string back had never started in the NFL and he had no legitimate backup. The Buccaneers rectified that by trading for Kansas City's Michael Bennett after Graham's first start.

But the situation could have been disastrous to the Bucs and their season. But they survived. They're still in the NFC South lead. Graham has flourished as the primary back and Bennett appears to have a firmer grasp on the playbook.

Pittman returns to a situation where he only has to fit in, not take control, of the ground game.

"I have no expectations," Pittman said Wednesday. "Coach (Gruden) said he's going to throw me in the fire and that I should be prepared for a big game. He didn't say I'm going to carry 20 times and catch 10 passes."

That's because it's likely all three backs will see time on Sunday. Why? There are two major reasons.

First, all three backs have different strengths and skills. Pittman (6-foot, 228) is an adept pass receiver and the best blocking back on the team. He also runs hard between the tackles. Graham (5-9, 225) is a bowling-ball type back who excels between the tackles and at making players miss at the second level. His pass receiving has improved dramatically this season. Bennett (5-9, 207) is a speedster who excels when he can get outside the tackles and take on defenders one-on-one and make them miss.

"It gives us a lot of options," Graham said. "Especially with (Bennett's) speed, (Pittman's) versatility and the way I'm running the ball. It will be hard for teams to prepare for that."

Second, the coaching staff won't want to mess with a good thing. Graham has blossomed after a rough start. He rushed for only 29 yards in his first start against Tennessee.

Since then, Graham has rushed for 92, 62 and a career-high 124 yards. His yards-per-carry has shot up to 4.1 during those three games, and he's caught 15 passes as well, including a career-high 13 against Detroit.

Gruden hasn't named a starter, but it will likely be Graham, just for continuity's sake.

"We're going to utilize him (Graham) because he's done a great job," Garcia said. "We can't go away from what's been working for this team."

With Graham shouldering the load, the Buccaneers have rushed for more yards in every game, starting with 30 total rushing yards against Tennessee and ending with the 162 rushing yards against Arizona two Sundays ago. That was the most since Graham and Pittman subbed for an injured Carnell Williams and helped the Bucs rush for 189 yards against Carolina on Sept. 30.

Graham has certainly made progress during Pittman's absence, most notably in blitz pickups, seeing holes and receiving the football. He said his instincts as a ball carrier, mostly dormant in the regular season, have slowly returned. Plus he's continuing to improve.

"I want to finish better, and now that I'm making my reads I'm getting to the second level more and making people miss," Graham said. "It's all starting to come together."

But his increase role has meant an increased workload. Since his start against Tennessee, Graham has rushed 80 times and caught 15 passes. In terms of the team's running backs, that's 82.6 percent of the total touches in the last four games. Fullback B.J. Askew has caught 10 passes, and Bennett has rushed 10 times.

Garcia said the offense is so complicated that it's almost impossible for one back to shoulder the entire load, making Graham's numbers during that span more remarkable.

"For one guy to carry that load, I give credit to Earnest and what he's done the past two or three weeks," Garcia said. "He's had to be the mainstay. Now we have help coming back."

That may be the biggest boost from Pittman's return. Graham can get a break every once in a while.

"It's the NFL. It's physical," Graham said. "We have a lot of season left. It's going to help (me) not having to play 75 plays a game. Bennett is up to speed now. (Pittman's return) is going to benefit everyone.

"Definitely having Michael Pittman on the field is a great, great, great thing."

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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.

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