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Tampa Finally Has a Running Game

For the first time in years Tampa fans can go into the off-season with a positive outlook on the ground attack.  The tandem of Carnell Williams and LeGarrette Blount proved vital to the Buccaneers offensive resurgence.

 When Williams was drafted he had his shoes in the hall of fame after three weeks.  Needless to say, this raised our hopes to a level that could not be realized by his performance on the field.  After his rookie season I recall thinking that he will post more impressive numbers once he gets a full season under his belt.  Nike was personalizing a pair of cleats to help him avoid the foot problems that kept him off of the field and he became more familiar with the system as the year went on.  Unfortunate injuries should have ended his career by now; his natural drive and heart have kept him playing at a high enough level for him to contribute and the locker room is happy to have him.  He's proven himself vital as a solid third down blocker, and until Blount gets that under control Carnell will see playing time and have opportunities to catch the ball.  

It looks like this will be the year that Tampa has a franchise running back who can put up some serious numbers and command respect from the defense.

Many factors contribute to my optimism, but probable the most influential factors is Blount's durability.  He missed a few games at the beginning of the season and it wasn't due to injury.  He was released late in the preseason by Tennessee and may as well been given a playbook opening day.  Once the Buc's were more comfortable putting him in the backfield he didn't disappoint.  A running back devoid of injury is difficult enough to encounter, let alone one who averages five yards a carry and can run the ball 20-25 times a game.  Blount showed he could do that for one year and there's reason to believe he can do it again.

Another factor was the fact that collectively the offensive line disappointed last year.  Key members played hurt or had went on IR early in the season and no names filled their gaps with a relative kind of success. Penn was the only lineman who started at his natural position for the entirety of the year.  Davin Joseph and Jeff Faine will come back rested and James Lee looked good.  The real concern is Left Guard.  Zuttah is not a good run blocker, period.  He doesn't generate any push and normally is shoved backward.  I wouldn't mind a second or third round pick spent on a guard come April.  Either way, the point of these rambling efforts is to illuminate the fact that Blount had a great season with a sub-par line.  He often had to find new holes when plays were blown up, use quickness to bounce it outside when absolutely nothing was there, and shake off tackles in the backfield.  Although he won't win a lot of footraces, there is no replacement for being able to rumble. 

This relates to another point: Blount does not go down on the first, or sometimes second hit.  He's a hard man to tackle in the open field as both Rhodes and Milloy know first hand.  LeGarrette's coming out party in Arizona allowed him to showcase a wide range of ability on his 4th quarter herculean effort.  The offense was near their own endzone and everyone in the stadium knew who was getting the ball.  Blount took the handoff and should have been tackled in the backfield as the left side of the line collapsed.  The big man spun and found an outside lane, only to have a safety break down in front of him.  The result of a split second decision was pandemonium and ESPN highlights for the next three days.  Blount took flight- all 250 lbs. of him.  Rhodes dove underneath and up-ended his Defensive Tackle while no. 27 was galloping between the hash-marks.  Every defense saw what he did against Arizona, and unfortunately for Lawyer Milloy, they saw it again.  The leap was not a fluke, LeGarrette is a natural athlete.  He's fast enough to do damage with his vision, power and quickness.  It's a great compliment to his skill set.  Should a defender hit him high, they'll get blown up whether or not they bring him down.  If a tackler dives too low he could be embarrassed on national television for the next week.  That's a lot to think about.

Finally, the passing game only helps.  Rookie receivers are contributing and breaking team records.  Freeman is lighting up the scoreboard and isn't afraid to dance for a few yards down the sideline.  Opponents can't afford to put eight  men in the box and wait for Blount if Winslow and Williams are sprinting up the field behind them.  The runner also provides an invaluable asset for the play action.

Tampa will give Kareem Huggins another shot with his 4.28 to be the complimentary speed back, and fans just hope he can stay healthy.  However, late rounders will probably be spent on someone who fits the same mold to give the team other options while providing Kareem with motivation.  Williams will remain the third down back, though I anticipate Blount will become reliable in that capacity this year.  The potential for the running game is very high, especially with the prospect of Huggins coming back healthy.  My fingers are crossed for that.