Michael Pittman keeps a running game going as holes open up.
By JOHN C. COTEY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003
SAN DIEGO -- It was, in Mike Alstott's words, "nothing special."
Simple toss sweep to the weak side. Basic running play. Nothing to it.
But when Michael Pittman took the pitch, swept around left end and took off for his longest run of the season, 23 yards to the Oakland 14, the message was pretty clear: The Bucs were going to run the ball, even if everyone told them the week leading up to the Super Bowl that they couldn't.
"The game plan was to get the running game going," said Pittman, the Buc workhorse Sunday and a San Diego native. "I think we did that."
Yes, they did. Though the 3.6 yards a carry won't do the day justice, the 150 yards and some crucial runs by Pittman, who had 124 of the team's yards, tell a much different story. And in the second quarter, when the Bucs turned a 3-3 game into an insurmountable 20-3 lead, it was Pittman and Alstott leading the charge behind a rejuvenated offensive line that appeared to wear down the Raiders.
But Oakland might have known they were in trouble long before that as Pittman's 23-yarder on just his second carry of the game set the tone for a disastrous first half.
"There's no question about it," said Alstott, who threw the key block on Pittman's run. "There's a lot of jitters, butterflies and a lot of hoopla at the start of the game that you have to get out of your system. For us to come out and run the ball effectively from start to end . . . that was the one play that set the tone for a great day."
"From there," Pittman said, "the running game was on."
Pittman's run set up the Bucs for a game-tying field goal.
His next big one set up his running mate Alstott.
With 8: 26 left in the first half, Pittman plowed over right tackle for 6 yards, and the next play went 19 up the middle.
For fans that have been frustrated by his ever-moving legs but never-breaking-tackles body this season, they had to love the move he put on future Hall-of-Fame safety Ron Woodson, faking him out of his shoes at the end of the run to get to the Raider 2.
Two plays later, Alstott barreled in for his fourth postseason touchdown and a 13-3 Buc lead.
"The offensive line just blocked great for me," Pittman said. "I just ran through the holes, and I almost broke another one. I just kept pounding and pounding, and the yards came."
Pittman's 100-yard game was his first this season. His previous high this season was the 90 yards he had in the season finale in Chicago.
"He did a great job for us today," said center Jeff Christy. "It felt great to get him over the 100-yard mark. Like I said all along, we have got to control the line of scrimmage and there's no doubt in my mind we did that today."
The postseason hadn't been particularly good to the Buc running backs, short touchdowns aside. Pittman had only 41 yards against San Francisco and 17 against Philadelphia.
But behind an offensive line that once again kept pass rushers off quarterback Brad Johnson, holes were opening all day long. The Bucs ran a season-high 42 times.
"We were going to pound the rock, even when they put 10-men up there," said Alstott. "The line, they responded to the challenge."
Brad Johnson called the final touchdown of the first half that Pittman set up the "knockout blow."
Coach Jon Gruden called the drive to the end the first half and one to start the second -- seven of the 14 plays were runs -- the "decisive blows" in the game.
All of which helped Pittman salvage a relatively disappointing 2002 season, with expectations high after he escaped from Phoenix and signed as a free agent.
"This," Pittman said, "is a long way from Arizona. A looooong way (from) Arizona."