TAMPA — This is how dire the Bucs' running back situation is becoming: Jon Gruden hopes to get a lift from a player with a reconstructed right knee who hasn't taken a hit on the field in more than 13 months.
The return of Cadillac Williams, possible after the bye week, was merely a feel-good story until the run of injuries at running back.
Starting tailback Earnest Graham was forced to leave Sunday's 30-27 overtime win at Kansas City with a knee injury but finished the game. Backup Warrick Dunn didn't even make the trip because of a pinched nerve in his back. Fullback B.J. Askew has missed six games with a hamstring strain.
No wonder Gruden took the unprecedented step of giving players seven days off from practice.
"It's going to help us," Gruden said of the bye week. "Obviously our running back situation in particular is very concerning to us. Both fullbacks, both halfbacks. Carnell Williams will get a chance to work in this week a little bit more, and we'll determine his progress next week. But we've got a number of guys that are nicked up and guys that we need back. Hopefully this week will help us."
Graham, the Bucs' leading rusher with 560 yards and four touchdowns, has taken hits as a ballcarrier and at fullback. He has filled in for Askew and Byron Storer, who was placed on injured reserve after tearing his right ACL against Carolina.
"I think he got hurt early in the game," Gruden said of Graham. "He went to the locker room; trainers looked at him. Courageously, he came out and played in the second half. It's a tough time of year, midseason, for a running back in the NFL. These guys are all sore and beat up.
"Have we asked a lot of Earnest? Maybe too much at times, yes, yes we have, but that's what you do with your best players. … We got to lean on our guy and he's our only healthy, versatile back going into the game, so that was our plan (Sunday). Unfortunately, we fell behind and we obviously had to get into a little bit of a throw-it mentality late in the game."
Graham rushed 19 times for 62 yards and threw his first NFL touchdown against the Chiefs. And he lost two fumbles. With Dunn inactive, the Bucs did not make much use of Michael Bennett, who had two carries for 1 yard.
But the Bucs got some help from Clifton Smith, the undrafted rookie free agent from Fresno State who had a 97-yard kickoff return. While Graham was undergoing tests, Smith pitched in with three carries for 17 yards and caught one pass (though he also lost a fumble).
"He really helped us not only in the kicking game but from scrimmage," Gruden said. "Earnest went out in the first half and missed a few possessions, came back and gritted it out. But in those final couple drives, you saw a lot of Clifton Smith, as a runner and a receiver, picking up the blitz, knowing what to do. …
"You look at him, he's not a tall guy, but he's a very thick, quick, shifty, elusive back. And he's a natural — he understands the game and he shows great poise as a player."
As for Williams, Gruden hopes to use practice squad players to provide contact during individual workouts this week. The Bucs have until next week to activate Williams or put him on injured reserve.
"(Williams) is not, I am sure, real thrilled about enjoying his bye week like some of the other guys, but we will have him in pads (today) and Wednesday," Gruden said. "He has a great look in his eye. He is very confident, I think, in his knee and what he has put into this.
"We will see what Earnest and Warrick's health status is and we will make that decision next week, but there is a possibility that (Williams) can help us, and that would be really exciting."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]