The Bucs win their fifth consecutive game and next face the team that has eliminated them the past two seasons.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2002
TAMPA -- If you had forgotten how it looks when the Bucs have success running the football, Sunday offered a good description.
It is a thick-legged player always moving forward, his shirttail hanging out of his pants, blood streaming from his elbows and grass glued to his arms and neck.
It is his big shoulder pads colliding with power and determination as he carries more men on his back than a Sea World mammal.
It is Mike Alstott, the A-Train, and he arrived right on schedule.
The five-time Pro Bowl player, who had been the missing man in Tampa Bay's offense, returned to rush for 126 yards and two touchdowns in the Bucs' 17-3 victory against Cleveland.
The Bucs dominant defense made sure Alstott's scoring runs of 1 and 17 yards were enough, extending its streak of not allowing a touchdown to 12 quarters.
"That's the way we used to finish everybody off. We put them right on the edge and then run the Train at them because the Train is going to knock you off the edge," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.
"When I saw him standing back there with his hands on his knees, I said, 'Uh, oh, here comes the Train. Here comes the Train. I hope you've got your tackling drills up to par. Because here he comes.' He was just bouncing off people."
It was the Bucs' fifth consecutive victory, tying for the best start at 5-1 with the 1979 and 1997 teams. The victory also sets up an early battle for supremacy in the NFC when Tampa Bay travels Sunday to Philadelphia, where the Eagles have ended the Bucs' past two seasons with wild-card playoff victories.
Tampa Bay narrowly missed its second shutout of the season. Only an unnecessary roughness penalty on cornerback Dwight Smith got the Browns close enough for Phil Dawson's 50-yard field goal with 11:45 left.
"We'll keep the touchdown streak going," cornerback Ronde Barber said.
"I just know the feeling you get when you're out there and you're dominating somebody like we were dominating on defense. They didn't have a chance. They weren't as good as advertised."
The Browns entered with the NFL's fifth-best passing offense, averaging 269.2 yards. But behind a relentless pass rush led by Sapp, who had his team-leading fifth and sixth sacks, Tim Couch was 20-of-40 for 151 yards and an interception.
"I think they realized with that fifth-ranked passing offense that they hadn't played anyone the caliber of us yet," Barber said.
Before Sunday, Alstott had trouble finding his role in Jon Gruden's offense. His carries peaked at 11 in Week 2 against Baltimore, and he followed with five against St. Louis, seven at Cincinnati and four at Atlanta.
"It was getting frustrating mentally," Alstott said. "I'm not going to lie.
"When you love the game so much, you've been playing so long and the passion is there, you just want to be a part of it. I was a part of it. I didn't feel like I was left out. But it's just the competitive nature of an athlete and the past success and history of being here. I just wanted a bigger part."
Playing behind Michael Pittman at tailback and seeing increasingly fewer snaps at fullback, Alstott met with Gruden last week in an attempt to understand his lack of playing time.
"I just talked to see how he felt I was doing and what he saw my role as," Alstott said. "We just had a normal conversation. It wasn't like I said I need the ball or I need to do this or do that. It was just what do you see me as? And how do you see me in your offense?"
In the first half he had two carries for 5 yards, but the Browns saw plenty of Alstott in the second half.
The Bucs took a 7-0 lead on Alstott's 1-yard run, but that was set up by Pittman's 64-yard catch-and-run on Tampa Bay's third offensive play.
"Alstott for president," Gruden said. "We may move him to quarterback. We may install the freeze option."
Gruden, though, said he has no plans to replace Pittman, who accounted for 148 yards (53 rushing, 95 receiving) of the Bucs' 380 yards.
After that, the Bucs left a lot of points off the scoreboard. Tampa Bay had the ball in the red zone six other times. But the drives ended with an interception, Martin Gramatica 33-yard field goal, blocked field goal, missed 34-yard field goal and bad snap on a field goal.
Had it not been for Alstott's cutback on a 17-yard touchdown run, the Bucs might not have found the end zone again.
Gruden said he was not happy with the kicking game.
"You have to be able to snap the ball, put the ball on a tee and put the ball through the goal posts in the NFL," he said.
"We left a lot of points out on the field," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "We got down in the red zone a couple of times, had to throw it away a couple of times and had a couple of mishaps on field goals. I've had some pretty good days when we didn't come away with the victory. It's great to have sort of an ugly day like we did and still win."
Johnson had his worst passing day of the season: 15-for-32 for 194 yards and a 53.4 efficiency rating.
Without injured safety Robert Griffith, the Browns played a lot of zone coverage with two deep safeties and dared the Bucs to run the ball.
"They actually didn't do a lot of things we expected them to do," Johnson said. "I think with Griffith hurt, I think it kind of changed some of their coverages. They ran a lot of Cover 2 and seven-man box. You have to run against a seven-man box."
It took nearly that many Browns to tackle Alstott. He broke five tackles and carried former South Florida cornerback Anthony Henry on a 25-yard run early in the second half. It was all Alstott on the second touchdown drive as he carried five consecutive times for 55 yards.
"That's been their MO," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "They get a lead, and they'll just grind you and pound you."
And sometimes, you get caught under the wheels of the A-Train.