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Running backs check egos to benefit offense

Mike Alstott starts and gets the most carries, but Aaron Stecker gets the big gain, 59 yards on his only attempt.

By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2002

Mike Alstott starts and gets the most carries, but Aaron Stecker gets the big gain, 59 yards on his only attempt.

TAMPA -- The Bucs' leading rusher this season, Michael Pittman, got 19 yards Sunday. Starting tailback Mike Alstott averaged 2.1 on 26 attempts. And backup Aaron Stecker exploded for a 59-yard gain in the second quarter -- then never carried again.

But the scoreboard showed a 38-24 victory against Minnesota, and when you're winning, it's easy for everyone to get along.

"They told me at the beginning of the week that Mike was going to get more touches this week, and that's fine with me," said Pittman, whose three carries were his fewest with the Bucs. "I do what I do when my number's called. Coach wanted to give Mike an opportunity to have another big game."

Alstott, who came within two carries of a career high, finished with 55 rushing yards. Fourteen of his carries went for 1 yard or less.

"It wasn't a home run today, but there were some productive runs," he said. "I'm obviously excited to get the nod and get more carries, but I'm always ready."

The Bucs' biggest play came on Stecker's only carry, a 59-yard run down the left sideline that was the team's longest since a 70-yard run by Warrick Dunn in 2000. An unnecessary roughness penalty put the ball on the Vikings 12.

"I had a kickoff return (for 86 yards) last year, but as far as a play from scrimmage, I haven't had a play like that since NFL Europe," said Stecker, who played in Scotland in 1999 before joining the Bucs. "When Coach (Jon Gruden) says he wants to get me involved, it gives me extra confidence. I just want to get out there and show them what I can do, and I hope it will continue."

It was the third time in four weeks the Bucs had shifted the allotment of carries. Alstott had 17 for 126 yards in a win against Cleveland, then had a combined 18 on 10 carries in the games against Philadelphia and Carolina.

Running backs coach Kirby Wilson said Alstott's success against the Vikings, including 129 yards on 28 carries at home last year, factored in the decision to showcase him.

"We've got a good group of running backs, in terms of attitude," Wilson said. "They've known about the past success Mike's had against the Vikings, and they were all for it, very excited about getting out there."

The Bucs often lined up with a big backfield of 248-pound Alstott at tailback and 237-pound Jameel Cook at fullback. Alstott said that alignment has teams expecting the run, which helped the receivers get open in the endzone.

"They expected the run, and the pass opened up huge," Alstott said. "They were biting on a lot of play-action fakes, were very conscious of the running game, and that was great around the goal line because when they bring the house, somebody's going to be open for a pass."

The misdirection wasn't limited to running backs. In the first quarter, on third and goal from the 2, the Bucs lined up with receiver Keyshawn Johnson at H-back. He drew the defense to the right side, which left tight end Rickey Dudley open for a touchdown pass.

"It was cool, but they doubled me," Johnson said. "I haven't been in the backfield since I left New York. Coach put that in, and he has a lot of things he can pull out."

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