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Club sees a Pittman it sought all along

By ROGER MILLS and KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- He purposefully got dressed in his locker room stall, as if savoring the glory of the moment..

Running back Michael Pittman, maligned much of the season for low numbers, ran Sunday with the drive and determination the Bucs thought he had when they signed him in the offseason.

Pittman finished with 90 yards on 21 carries and added two catches for 28 yards in one of his best games as a Buc.

"I've heard the heat but I don't care about the heat," Pittman said. "The people who bring the heat have never carried the ball. Can they play this game? Everyone is going to be their own critic. Everyone is going to talk about me. But, can they run the rock?"

In a game in which the Bucs offense, run by backup quarterback Rob Johnson, did not get into the end zone, Pittman played a critical role in controlling the tempo.

"I went out there and played the game," said Pittman, who entered with 628 yards on 183 carries. "I got the ball a little bit more."

SCOREBOARD WATCHING: Warming up at Memorial Stadium, Bucs players did not need to guess the result of the game between the Packers and the Jets. It was on the jumbotron on the north end zone.

They knew, thanks to the Jets 42-17 mashing, that a win against the Bears would have secured the No. 2 seed through the NFC playoffs, a first-round bye and a home game the following week.

"I can't be a liar, that was a huge motivator," coach Jon Gruden said. "Any time you have an opportunity to have a bye week in the playoffs, that's like winning a playoff game. Any of our players that didn't know that, figured it out quickly, that this was a big night from that standpoint."

DECISIONS, DECISIONS: Safety Dexter Jackson tried to sneak a play past the Bears special teams unit and had partial success.

In a scoreless first quarter, Brad Maynard's 67-yard punt bounced into the end zone and stayed there untouched for a few seconds. As the Bears jogged past the live ball, Jackson scooped it up and tried catch the Bears napping. He was tackled on the 13.

In the confusion, the Bears were penalized 5 yards for an illegal substitution. Had Jackson not attempted to take the ball out, the Bucs would have started on their 20.

"I was trying to catch them napping, hoping to slip one by them," Jackson said. "The guy caught me and tripped me as I was about to go 108 yards. You know, it was a big game, so I was just trying to make a big play."

TACKLE RACE: Entering Sunday's game, Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks had 159 tackles, three ahead of middle linebacker Shelton Quarles. Brooks, voted to his sixth consecutive Pro Bowl last week, has led the Bucs in tackles the past four seasons but has been in a close battle with Quarles.

Quarles, a strongside linebacker moved to the middle with the departure of Jamie Duncan, had led Brooks through the first 14 games.

"You know, it wasn't something I was paying attention to," said Brooks, who finished with an unofficial total of six tackles, two more than Quarles. "We'll see; hopefully I'll be able to retain my title."

TAKEAWAY STREAK: The Bucs and Bears hold the NFL's longest current streaks for games with at least one turnover. Tampa Bay has forced a turnover in 41 consecutive games, and the Bears have committed one in 34 straight.

"The thing that has been missing in the last few weeks was the bunch of turnovers," said Brooks, who extended both streaks with his second-quarter interception. "When people think of the Bucs defense, they think of us forcing turnovers."

HE'LL TAKE IT: Cornerback Brian Kelly had been stuck on six interceptions for the past four games but got a critical one late Sunday. With the Bucs leading 9-0, Bears quarterback Henry Burris slung a deep pass to receiver Marty Booker, who juggled it and tipped it into Kelly's hands.

"There are no cheap ones in the NFL," said Kelly, who had one more later in the game. "Eight picks in a year is pretty good. That's a good year. But we have a lot more work to do."

BACK IN THE HOOD: For three members of the Bucs, the trip to Champaign was more of a homecoming than a road trip. Rice, tight end Ken Dilger and fullback Jameel Cook all enjoyed outstanding careers with the Fighting Illini.

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