|Young players help Buccaneers back to playoffs|
|Written by Admin|
|Monday, 17 December 2007 12:05|
Start with Micheal Spurlock whose historic kickoff return for a touchdown helped the Bucs (9-5) clinch the NFC South on Sunday.
Then there's former Arena Football League standout Greg White and third-year defensive tackle who Jovan Haye have had a big impact on defense. Second-year pro Donald Penn has held his own as an injury replacement on a young offensive line; running back Earnest Graham is on pace to gain 1,000 yards after entering training camp as the third-string tailback.
That doesn't take into account 2007 draft picks Gaines Adams and Tanard Jackson. Or Barrett Rudd, who's in his first full season as the team's starting middle linebacker. Or linebacker Cato June, who joined the Bucs as a free agent after helping Indianapolis win the Super Bowl last season.
``It think it starts with our rookie class,'' Gruden said Monday, noting that Adams - the first defensive player selected - has teamed with White and Haye to improve a pass rush that was virtually nonexistent when Tampa Bay went 4-12 a year ago.
Jackson, a fourth-round pick, earned the free safety job in training camp and has started every game.
White played for Gruden's brother, Jay, in the AFL. He joined the Bucs after training camp began, and now leads the club with eight sacks. He's also forced a franchise-tying seven fumbles, even though he has only started two games.
Gruden also is impressed with the progress of an offensive line featuring four starters in their first- or second pro seasons. They've done a decent job of protecting 37-year-old quarterback Jeff Garcia, and the running game has been productive with Graham filling in for the injured Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams and Michael Pittman.
``You can't say enough about what he's done,'' Gruden said of Graham, who has rushed for 877 yards and 10 touchdowns after spending the past three seasons playing mostly on kick coverage and return teams.
Graham scored a rushing TD in a franchise-record sixth consecutive game; Adams sacked Chris Redman to force a fumble that Haye recovered to set up the score; and White caused and recovered a fumble to set up a field goal during Sunday's 37-3 rout of the Atlanta Falcons.
Those were all crucial plays, however former practice squad receiver Spurlock was still the talk of the town Monday after racing 90 yards for the first touchdown on a kickoff return in the club's 32-season history.
``That's a great play, and a great accomplishment to get it off Santa's wish list,'' Gruden said.
``For all the fans that were in the bathroom at that time, because I know a lot of fans go to the bathroom when our kickoff return team gets out there, stay in your seats next time.''
With the division race decided and a playoff berth assured, Gruden faces a decision on how to approach remaining games against San Francisco and Carolina.
The Bucs still have a shot at finishing as the No. 3 seed in the NFC, and the coach likely will take that into consideration when pondering whether to rest key players.
``We want to win. To do that you got to play your best players,'' Gruden said.
``There might be some opportunity to look at some players, although we've looked at just about every guy on our roster and then some. So we're going to use everybody on our football team. We're not going to change much in the next two weeks.''