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Jones makes most of first start

Tampa Bay's depth chart move provides a consistent ground game that had been lacking.

ROGER MILLS
Published December 8, 2003

NEW ORLEANS - Two weeks ago against the Giants, the Bucs coaching staff offered a not-so-subtle hint that something was up.

Running back Thomas Jones and tight end Rickey Dudley were introduced with the offensive starters, although neither started that Monday night game.

Sunday, the staff made one introduction official.

Jones, who has looked like the Bucs' most productive running back since midseason, was rewarded with his first start and it wasn't a gimmick.

"We started with Jones and we ended with Jones," coach Jon Gruden said. "We made sure we stayed true to what we wanted to try to get done as a coaching staff. No disrespect to (former starter) Michael Pittman, I think he's a great back, but we wanted to see Thomas Jones from start to finish. And all things considered, I thought he did a great job."

Jones responded with 103 yards from scrimmage and providing the Bucs with a consistent running attack in a game that called for precisely that.

"There's a different mentality when you're a starter," said Jones, who came to the Bucs from the Cardinals in a June 3 trade for Marquise Walker. "When you're coming in off the bench, you're not sure so it's different. It's hard to explain. When you're a running back, there is some confidence knowing that you're going to get the ball and that allows you not to press on every play. It takes a lot of pressure off of you and makes you more comfortable."

Jones, 25, established that the Bucs, who have had sparks of running efficiency but little consistency, were going to have a good chance to control the clock, control the field position and control the game.

On the ground, the seventh overall pick in 2000 draft had 89 yards on 20 carries. His 4.5 yards per carry kept the chains moving and the Saints grimacing.

"I tell you what, for a guys that's not 245 or 250 pounds, you know that one guy is not going to take him down," left tackle Roman Oben said. "He's very shifty and bouncy and can move in and out, but he's strong as heck. Look at him with his shirt off, he looks like a he-man.

"I knew when he got here that he was going to be a key addition to our team, it was just a matter of when. I'm glad they gave him a chance and he gave us a spark that we needed."

This is not to say that Pittman hasn't had a solid season for the Bucs. He entered the game with 172 carries for 696 yards and 54 receptions for 415 yards and routinely had been praised by Gruden.

But against the Saints, Pittman had only six carries for 13 yards and three catches for 29 yards, proving that the game plan was all Jones.

"It's very gratifying to know that the coaching staff has the confidence to stick with me and gave me a chance to go out there and make plays," said Jones, who hadn't had more than 10 carries in a game all season. "I'm very grateful for the opportunities that I had and I'm glad that I was able to contribute to the win."

One of the key elements was the 5-10, 220-pound Jones' burst on early downs. He had first-down gains of 4, 12, 9, 3, 13, 6 and 4 yards.

"It changes the whole dynamics of the game," quarterback Brad Johnson said. "You're either third and 2 or third and 10. It's about how good you are on first down. I've said all along that first down is the most important down in the game. It sets up everything else and he was able to get yards after the first hit. He was an effective player for us and he does have something we need when it comes to the extra yards."

Oben said Jones' effort made blocking enjoyable.

"As players, no matter who's running, you love those games," Oben said. "It's a big difference, you can go to all kinds of plays. But (when you can't run), that prevents coach from calling a lot of other plays."

But for all the hype, Jones appears seemed less giddy about his day than about the end result.

"Today was big day for us, because we got a win," he said. "We needed the win and we came in here and played hard. We showed a lot of heart."

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