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Rushing attack emerges at best time

Mike Alstott's timely runs continue a trend the Bucs finally started in early December.

By BRANT JAMES, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003

TAMPA -- It took time, seemingly eons, but the Bucs finally might have struck the offensive balance they sought for so long. And with another season-making date looming in Veterans Stadium against the Eagles, the equilibrium might have been struck just in time.

"Four or five weeks ago we really put that balancing act back together," said running back Mike Alstott, who led all rushers with 60 yards on 17 carries and scored two 2-yard touchdowns. "It's not just running or passing from us now.

"We can't go in there and be one-dimensional. We need to bring both aspects of the attack."

Since a 34-10 win against Atlanta Dec. 8, when Alstott rushed for 95 yards, he and Michael Pittman have combined to average 99.4 yards a game. That might do.

"If you look at the midseason on, we really took off," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "Everyone talks about the defense, but we actually scored 20 points per game. I think we earned our respect."

The key to the Bucs running game in Sunday's 31-6 win over San Francisco was timeliness. Alstott converted on all four of his third-down carries, including a 2-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a 7-0 lead with 5:16 left in the first quarter.

The touchdown was the first for the Bucs in the playoffs since 1999, when they defeated the Washington Redskins, 14-13. Not lost on the Bucs is that the last two playoff games came at Veterans Stadium, in wild-card games.

Alstott's second score extended his club record of postseason touchdowns to five and made him the team's all-time playoff scoring leader with 30 points.

Warrick Dunn's and Alstott's inability to make the Eagles respect the Bucs rushing attack -- Tampa Bay had 50 yards in a 21-3 loss in 2000 and 61 in a 31-9 loss last season -- made defense painfully simple for one of the league's best.

Alstott's statistics Sunday were not dazzling, but his contribution, in addition to 41 yards on 17 carries by Pittman, could be enough to relieve the withering pressure the Eagles exerted in the two playoff losses and a 20-10 win over the Bucs on Oct. 20.

"We might not have had that great of stats, but as a team we scored 31 points," said Pittman, who had a 22-yard run. "This offense has been coming together all year, getting better and better. Hopefully, everyone will see that now."

An offensive line that has often seemed under siege responded on Sunday by attacking, and Alstott ran with the abandon that made him a fan favorite. That same effort will be needed against Philadelphia, center Jeff Christy said.

"(Being able to run the ball) helps tremendously," he said. "Anytime you can establish the line of scrimmage and get an Alstott and Pittman and Aaron Stecker involved, it's just a huge advantage. Make them defend the run as well as the pass. Whenever they stop one, they pretty much just tee off and blitz and it's hard on (the offensive line) and it's hard on everybody."

Wide receiver Joe Jurevicius, who caught three passes for 48 yards and a touchdown, said repetition has allowed the team to improve its balance.

"Practice, practice, practice," he said. "That's the only way to make something better. We've been doing it for two weeks now.

"I think it takes a lot of pressure off (receivers), but there will be times when the pass is not clicking and times when the run is not clicking and times when both are. Right now both are working."

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