Graham flourishes while Pittman falters
The buzz after the Bucs' bye week was how much deeper the team would be at running back, with Michael Pittman back from an ankle injury, and recently acquired Michael Bennett with two more weeks to learn the playbook. And, of course, Earnest Graham was still around.

The game plan Sunday against the Falcons featured Pittman early, but the veteran was off his game after a month on the sideline. Bennett was inactive. By the end of the day, the Bucs had a 31-7 victory and Graham had his second career 100-yard game: 102 yards and a touchdown.

Graham, a special teams player until Cadillac Williams' season-ending knee injury, is the first Buc with consecutive 100-yard games since Williams in the first three games of his rookie season in 2005. "The last two games, we got ahead and were able to run the ball well," Graham said. "That's crucial going into this playoff run."

Pittman, playing for the first time since sustaining a high ankle sprain Oct. 7 at Indianapolis, struggled early. On the Bucs' first possession, he dropped a third-down pass that would have resulted in a first down. On the next possession, he made a 6-yard reception on first down but fumbled on the next play after making a catch and being hit by cornerback Chris Houston.

"I couldn't concentrate ... because I hadn't been hit and didn't know what my ankle would do," Pittman said. "I wasn't myself early on. I kind of wish I would have waited another week. When you have an injury like I have, you worry about somebody hurting it. That means that instead of me concentrating on what I need to do out there, I'm thinking about that. I wasn't myself. But I'm looking forward to better days."

After the fumble, Pittman had 10 carries (for 44 yards) but no catches. "Pittman was sluggish early," Gruden said. "He looked like he's been inactive. He's upset with himself and probably mad at me. He's not 100 percent."

Graham was steady, as usual. After grinding out 124 yards on 34 carries against the Cardinals on Nov. 4, he needed only 17 carries to get to 102 against the Falcons. He even flashed some open-field speed reminiscent of his seasons as a featured back at the University of Florida. "He's clearly a very good back," Gruden said of Graham. "He showed that he has some open-field burst and escapability on the perimeter."

Each week, Graham seems to get more comfortable with his role as an NFL running back. "I felt like I was starting to see better," Graham said. "What I wanted to work on was getting into the secondary and being able to make guys miss, and I was able to do that.

Joanne Korth, The St.Petersburg Times 19 November 2007