Can the Bucs Compensate for Loss of Williams?

Tampa Bay heads to Indianapolis this weekend without their top running back, Carnell Williams. Who will step in? And how big of an impact will it have on the 3-1 Buccaneers?

When the news hit that Buccaneers running back Carnell Williams had a torn patellar tendon and would miss the rest of the season, NFL fans outside of Tampa had to be wondering who would step into his place to keep the 3-1 Buccaneers' running game afloat?


Even your more astute NFL fans outside of the NFC South would be hard-pressed to come up with the name of another Tampa Bay running back outside of fullback Mike Alstott.

Oh, that's right. He's not on the roster this year either.

So who will take over as the primary back in Tampa Bay? Ten-year veteran Michael Pittman.

Since joining the Buccaneers as a first-round pick in 2005, Carnell Williams has amassed 2,184 yards on the ground on 569 carries for a surprisingly pedestrian 3.8 yards-per-carry career average, including a 3.9 yards-per-carry average on 54 runs this years. And get this. The team's rushing average this season overall is 4.2 yards-per-carry, and during Williams' time in Tampa Bay, it's 3.9 yards per carry. So his average is actually being lifted by others.

Go figure.

So bring on Michael Pittman and his 5.7 yards-per-rush average for 2007. And toss in some Earnest Graham against Indy this weekend as well. He's averaging 4.5 yards-per-carry. The duo has a combined 60 rushes (six more than Williams this so far this year) and is averaging 5.1 yards-per-carry!  Tampa Bay shouldn't miss a beat, right?

Let's take closer look.

Pittman is certainly a capable step-in for Williams with 10 seasons in the league and 76 career starts. The 6 foot tall, 228-pound running back has a bit more size to throw at opponents than Williams at 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, but it hasn't shown on third-down situations -- an area where Tampa Bay might really miss the younger, quicker back.

Williams has converted an amazing 53.8 percent of third-down opportunities during his career -- regardless of the yardage required to move the chains. During the same span, Pittman has converted just 21.7% of his opportunities. Perhaps even more significant, Williams averaged 6.2 yards-per-carry when faced with a 3rd-and-2 or less situation.

That's huge if you want to keep drives alive and keep pace with an opponent who can put points on the board like the Colts can.

Michael Pittman
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

That said, Pittman actually offers some advantages when he's on the field. On a percentage basis, he doesn't get stuffed at the line of scrimmage nearly as often (6% versus 10.4% for Williams). And while the younger, less experienced Buccaneer has a memorable 43 runs for 10-plus yards during his short career already, that translates into 7.6 percent of his runs versus 15.3 percent by Pittman, who's ripped off 23 of his own in just 150 attempts during that span. And don't think those numbers are bolstered by mop-up duty late in the game. Pittman's total carries since 2005 have been almost dead-even across the two halves of play, and 15 of his 23 big-play runs came in the first half.

Pittman also is a back who's not likely to hurt your team with turnovers. He's surrendered the ball to his opponents just once out of two total fumbles during his last 242 touches of the football (running and receiving) dating back to the beginning of the 2005 season.

As a reserve who was spelling Williams for about seven carries per game this year, Pittman was able to stay fresh enough to average 5.7 yards-per-rush. So the big question facing Tampa Bay is how much that average will dip if he has to take the same pounding that Williams did, because his primary backup, Earnest Graham, is a fourth-year, largely unproven back who has just 82 career carries and a 4.3-yards-per-carry average. And he's had just 8 passes thrown to him with three completions -- but he fumbled away the ball on one after one of those catches.

Pittman, on the other hand, is a capable receiver, arguably even more skilled than Williams who has caught 53 balls for a 5.5 yards-per-catch average during his career. But while Williams hasn't ever had a catch of better than 25 yards, Pittman has four on 92 catches since Williams joined the team in 2005. And he sports an 8.5 yards-per-catch average.

Strictly by the numbers, Bucs fans should expect to see fewer third-downs converted on the ground the rest of the way this season, which means more punts and fewer scoring opportunities unless quarterback Jeff Garcia can pick up the slack and move the chains more frequently on the strength of his arm. And if he can't, that's going to cut into the hopes of keeping Peyton Manning on the sidelines this Sunday.

Pittman will have to replicate his performance levels of the 2003 and 2004 seasons when he was the starter and averaged 4.0 and 4.2 yards per carry respectively while carrying the ball in the neighborhood of 200 times during the season for Tampa Bay to continue their competitive ways. With Earnest Graham's limited receiving skills, you effectively take away one more potential passing target on any play situation where he's inserted into the lineup instead of Pittman.

Quite simply, the Bucs' best pass-receiving running back will now be forced to be their top running back. How they opt to use his increased presence -- by throwing more or by sticking to their current mix of run versus pass will be interesting to watch, especially against the Colts.

And above all, they'll have to hope that their 10-year veteran running back's body can hold up through 12 games as a starter. If not, they're season could go south quickly.

Ed Thompson's player interviews and NFL features are published across the network and are syndicated through's NFL team pages. You can contact him by email through this link.

Statistics referenced in this article are provided by STATS, LLC. Copyright 2007 by STATS, LLC. Any use or distribution of such Licensed Materials without the express written consent of STATS is strictly prohibited. 

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