All on the field at once, Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones and Mike Alstott pose a triple threat to Bucs foes.
TAMPA - Jon Gruden may have a solution for his crowded backfield, a triple option he experimented with in the preseason.
How does he choose among running backs Michael Pittman, Thomas Jones and Mike Alstott?
Play all three at once.
The complexity of Gruden's offense stems from his penchant for multiple formations. And with the production of Jones in five preseason games, the Bucs coach wants to keep him on the field as much as possible.
Gruden hinted at the possibility of using all three last week when asked if Jones had earned the opportunity to start.
"He's a guy we will use creatively. In some sets, you may look at him as a starter," Gruden said. "I don't want to say too much right now, but we're going to utilize our backs the best way we can and he will be a big part of that, as will other guys."
Facing Pittman, Jones and Alstott in the same offensive formation is a daunting challenge for the Eagles or any defense.
Jones, Tampa Bay's most instinctive and explosive ball carrier, would line up behind fullback Alstott. Pittman would be split out as a receiver.
In a base defense, an opponent would have to decide whether to cover Pittman with a linebacker, leaving it vulnerable to Jones running behind Alstott. If the linebacker remains inside to guard against the run, Pittman may have a favorable matchup against a safety.
The Bucs used a version of the three-back formation at least once in the preseason in their 10-6 win over the Jaguars. But on that particular play, Aaron Stecker and Pittman joined Jones, who gained 4 yards on a running play.
"We have good backs," Gruden said. "I think rushing stats in the NFL are the most overrated stats there are. Rushing yards by the quarterback add to the stats. Our quarterback is not going to rush for 500, 600 or 800 yards. He's just not going to do that.
"So every yard we make is going to come via the handoff. So we really feel good about Pittman, Alstott and we like what Jameel Cook did in this camp. Darian Barnes is a physical presence and Thomas Jones came in here and got my attention, I'll say that. He looks like a darn good football player. And what can you say about Stecker? You say the same thing every year. He just makes yards, does a good job and just goes home."
Keeping Jones on the field could be a key for the Bucs in the Sept. 8 regular-season opener at Philadelphia. In the last three playoff games against the Eagles at Veterans Stadium - including last season's 27-10 win in the NFC Championship Game - Tampa Bay has rushed for 49, 63 and 50 yards.
The Eagles have made a significant adjustment to slow the Bucs offense. They traded a fourth-round pick to the Falcons for middle linebacker Mark Simoneau who, at 238 pounds, provides quickness for a defense. Last season, the Eagles had trouble covering Pittman and tight end Ken Dilger with a big linebacker like Levon Kirkland.
Alstott's versatility provides Gruden with another option. With Rickey Dudley injured, Alstott could be used in some formations at tight end. Alstott had just seven carries in the preseason.
"He's an option, he certainly is," Gruden said. "That might be an area we continue to explore. We did a little bit in camp. There are other options also, but we won't discuss those publicly."
Jones, once thought of as a contingency if Pittman was lost to legal troubles, has turned out to be much more than that. He led the Bucs in rushing yards (175), average per carry (4.6) and touchdowns (three). As Gruden knows, for a team ranked 27th in the NFL in rushing last season, there can't be enough good running backs.
"You can never have too many," Gruden said. "We're not different than any other team in this league. Every team I saw play this year, last year, any year I've been in this league has a lot of good players. We just need to decide who are the right players for this year's team. We can't look back."