As they pursue their second straight division title, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers face the challenge of playing the rest of their season without their leading rusher. With the way Jeff Garcia and the defense are playing, along with an experienced stable of reserve running backs, their situation may not be so dire.
Garcia looks to lead the Buccaneers to their third consecutive victory on Sunday when they visit the winless Detroit Lions.
With last Sunday’s 19-13 win over Minnesota, Tampa Bay (7-3) improved to 4-1 since Garcia regained the starting quarterback job he lost when he played poorly in a season-opening defeat.
The Buccaneers, off to their best start since also opening 7-3 in 2005, are one game behind NFC South-leading Carolina, which defeated the Lions 31-22 last Sunday.
Garcia was 23 of 30 for 255 yards with no turnovers against the Vikings. The three-time Pro Bowl quarterback, who has completed 71.5 percent of his passes for 1,304 yards, three touchdowns and one interception in his last five games, also finished with 21 rushing yards Sunday - his most yards on the ground in more than a year.
“He moves around and you don’t know what he’s seeing and what he’s thinking. That’s his game,” Tampa Bay coach Jon Gruden said. “He’s a creative player, and his legs are his ally. I’ve tried to be honest with him the whole time. We need his legs and we need his scramble ability, his elusiveness in the pocket.”
The Bucs may need even more of his scrambling ability now that they’ll be without Earnest Graham the rest of the season.
Tampa Bay’s leading rusher with 563 rushing yards and four touchdowns, Graham landed on injured reserve Wednesday with a right ankle sprain. The injury will mean a greater role in the offense for 33-year-old Warrick Dunn and fellow veteran Carnell “Cadillac” Williams, who hasn’t played in a game since September 2007 because of a knee injury.
Williams, the 2005 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year, was moved from the physically unable to perform list to the 53-man roster last week, but was not active against the Vikings. There’s a chance he may be held out this week, too.
“We’re trying to temper our enthusiasm and do exactly what we think is the right thing. That involves a lot of people’s opinions. … I’m kind of going with the flow,” Gruden said. “I don’t know that he’ll play a major role in this game yet or not, or even if he will be active.”
Whoever carries the ball for the Bucs on Sunday will likely have plenty of room to run.
The Lions (0-10) allowed 264 rushing yards in last week’s loss to the Panthers, and are last in the league against the run (171.5 yards per game). They have given up eight rushing touchdowns in their last three games.
Tampa Bay’s defense, which has limited three of its last four opponents to 210 yards or fewer, also figures to have little trouble against the punchless Lions, who rank 27th in the NFL with 300.5 total yards per game and 29th with 17.3 points per game.
Although Tampa Bay won its second division title in three years last season, it lost to the Lions 23-16 at Ford Field on Oct. 21, 2007, snapping a four-game winning streak over their former NFC Central rival. Garcia, who spent the 2005 season with Detroit, completed 37 of 45 passes for 316 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions in that contest.
Very little has gone right for the Lions since.
Detroit is off to its worst start since opening a franchise-worst 0-12 in 2001, and has dropped 17 of 18 dating to last season.
“Have we failed? Yes. Have I failed? Yes. Am I going to give up? No way,” coach Rod Marinelli said after last week’s loss to Carolina. “Am I discouraged? No way. I’m not.”
Daunte Culpepper, who came out of retirement to sign with the Lions on Nov. 4, was 20-for-35 for 207 yards, one touchdown and two interceptions last Sunday. Culpepper has not faced the Bucs since 2005, when he played for Minnesota. In six career games against Tampa Bay, he has thrown for 1,474 yards and five touchdowns with 11 interceptions.
One bright spot for Detroit last week was rookie running back Kevin Smith, who gained a career-high 112 yards on 24 carries.
“It was big to get that first 100-yard game, but I would have rather done it in a win,” said Smith, who has run 47 times for 208 yards in two games since being named the starter. “Still, it gets me over the hump. Now I’m going to expect myself to do that every week.”
He’ll face a run defense that limited league-leading rusher Adrian Peterson to 85 yards on 19 carries last week.