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Bucs' running backs shine against Pats

TAMPA — Goldilocks had her bears. Charlie had his angels. Musketeers, blind mice and little pigs play well together in this denomination.

When it comes to Bucs running backs this season, coach Jon Gruden also has a triple threat.

If anything became clear in Sunday night's 27-10 win over the Patriots, it's that the Tampa Bay trio of Earnest Graham, Warrick Dunn and Michael Bennett can make the offense go. And go. And go.

In the first half alone, those backs helped the Bucs rush 19 times for 114 yards and a touchdown, a robust 6 yards per carry.

"We're all very different," Graham said. "I'm more of a between-the-tackles pounder. Warrick is more of an all-around guy. He's a very elusive guy. And Michael Bennett, he's a slasher. He'll kill you if he gets in space. We can be dangerous."

The victory improved the Bucs to 2-0 in the preseason. The Patriots, leaving quarterback Tom Brady in New England, fell to 0-2.

Playing together for an extended period for the first time this preseason, Graham and Dunn got things rolling early, and Bennett finished the Pats off. Together, they might chew up more yards this fall than mole crickets.

Graham (five rushes, 13 yards) provided muscle up the middle, scoring on a 1-yard run. Dunn (three rushes, 12 yards) zigged and zagged and caught three passes for 15 yards. Bennett lit a fuse and exploded for 57 yards on eight carries, including a 23-yarder to help set up the Bucs' second touchdown.

It was the first action of the preseason for Dunn, who had not played in a Bucs uniform at Raymond James Stadium since 2001. Dunn was greeted during pregame introductions with a standing ovation.

"It felt like everyone missed me, so it was good to get introduced to the crowd. And they all welcomed me back with a standing ovation, and that was great," Dunn said.

"I felt good because I had an opportunity to get out there and get hit and get a feel of game speed. I felt comfortable, and once you get going, you try to get into a groove to hopefully stay out there a while. But (Gruden) pulled me."

The Bucs scored on three of their four possessions in the first half and held a huge advantage at intermission in total yards (234-87), first downs (16-5) and time of possession (20:08-9:52).

Don't think the Bucs are deep just at tailback.

Fullback Byron Storer, playing for injured starter B.J. Askew, opened many of the holes and was rewarded with a 1-yard touchdown catch from Luke McCown. The play capped an 86-yard drive over eight plays and gave the Bucs a 17-0 lead with 1:13 remaining in the first half.

"I'm glad we were able to go out and really show what kind of firepower we have," Bennett said. "We really hadn't unleashed anything. For our offense to go out and do a great job, score on the first drive and keep the ball for 11 minutes … to do that against the defending AFC champions means something."

A year ago, Graham was forced into a workhorse role. After injuries to Cadillac Williams and Michael Pittman, he rarely came off the field. But he capitalized on his new role, rushing for 898 yards and 10 touchdowns.

However, carrying the entire offense took its toll on Graham, who battled through some nagging injuries.

Dunn, 33, figures to catch a lot of passes this season. Bennett, who was acquired in a trade with Kansas City in October, has a better grasp of the offense after re-signing as a free agent.

"How do you not play a guy like Michael Bennett?" Graham said. "We all love that. Michael Bennett is an explosive guy."

For Gruden, the triple threat at running back is almost a necessity. The Bucs proved that last season. And other NFC teams are stacked at that position as well.

"I'm watching Dallas with Marion Barber and Felix Jones; Carolina with Jonathan Stewart and DeAngelo Williams; then (Deuce) McAllister and (Reggie) Bush (in New Orleans)," Gruden said. "Everybody has different kinds of backs for different kinds of situations.

"I think these guys are workhorses. They can play in any situation. We know Warrick Dunn can do that. We know Earnest has proved it, and we like what Michael Bennett has done."

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Bucs' running backs shine against Pats 08/17/08 [Last modified: Monday, August 18, 2008 4:52pm]
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