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SP Times - Bucs offense is running on empty, Gruden says


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By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer


TAMPA - The Bucs knew they would struggle with Chris Simms at quarterback. But this?

After a 34-14 whitewashing by the Carolina Panthers, coach Jon Gruden laid most of the blame for Tampa Bay's troubles on its inability to run the football for the second straight week.

After averaging 142 yards rushing in their first six games, the 5-3 Bucs have managed 44 yards per game on the ground with Simms under center.

Some of the ineffectiveness could be traced to the foot injury of rookie Cadillac Williams, who set an NFL record by rushing for 434 yards in his first three games. Williams has been held to 62 yards in 35 attempts in his past three games. He rushed 11 times for 29 yards Sunday against the Panthers.

"I'm not going to use (Williams') injury as an excuse for us having 50 yards rushing in a game," Gruden said Monday. "We've got to block better, we've got to finish better and if we need to explode on somebody, run somebody over, make somebody miss to make yards, that's what we've got to do.

"We've all got to coach better. We've tried three tight ends, two tight ends and no tight ends to run the ball. We've got to find a couple of schemes that we can run and we've got to run the ball better."

Gruden admits, however, that Williams likely won't be fully healthy the rest of the season. And he didn't rule out spreading more carries among Michael Pittman, Earnest Graham - and yes - even Mike Alstott.

"I think he's a good player right now," Gruden said of Williams. "We've obviously got to get him some looks at the hole clean. We've got eight games left. ... The guy's going to be sore. He's probably not going to be 100 percent through the rest of the year. But who is? We've got to lean on him, and if we need to help him with Earnest (Graham) and Michael Pittman and Mike Alstott, by God we'll do that. We're going to find a way to get the running game going."

Alstott touched the ball just three times Sunday but produced two first downs after pass receptions and had a 1-yard touchdown run, the 51st rushing score of his career.

"He's having a great year at fullback and obviously you can see him catch the ball and do what he did (Sunday) after the catch, you realize he can still play at a high level," Gruden said of Alstott. "If we need to get him more involved as a ball carrier, we will do that. But we like what he's doing as a fullback and that's all I can say."

The Bucs did get some good news. The injury to starting left tackle Anthony Davis is not as bad as feared. Davis, who left the game in the second half Sunday, has a sprained medial collateral ligament and could play this weekend at home against Washington.

"I thought it was worse than it really was," Davis said. "The way I got hit, I felt a little something in there but it was all right. I got treatment and everything's fine. I'm going to see what I can do this week in practice."

Gruden said the young offensive line was overpowered by the Panthers defense, which ranks second in the NFL in rushing defense.

"We've had some good days, we've had some tough days," Gruden said. "And I see a lot of that on tape these days from every offensive line that I study. We took a step backward (Sunday) in some areas. A lot of it had to do with the way Carolina played. They came in here and played a tremendous physical football game up front."

The offense isn't the only area that needs improvement. For the second straight week, Tampa Bay's defense failed to produce a turnover and has one sack in the past two losses. Over the past five seasons, the Bucs are 29-8 in games in which they have a a positive turnover ratio; 3-20 during that stretch when they lose the turnover battle.

"We've certainly have been missing the dynamic, playmaking, game-changing type of plays that we're accustomed to seeing around here," Gruden said.

It won't get any easier. The Bucs host the Redskins (5-3) on Sunday before playing three of their next four games on the road against (NFC South) division opponents.

"I met with several of the players (Sunday) and early this morning," Gruden said. "We've got a young football team, particularly on offense. I worry a little bit about some of these guys getting a little bit freaked out with the length of the season, the mental grind, the physical grind that they go through. But in some ways, this is a real positive for our football team, for us to be tested this way.

"We physically got beaten (Sunday) by a quality football team and you can dwell on the negatives and you can also do something about it and roll your fist up and play a hell of a lot better coming Sunday."

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