TAMPA - For a few moments Sunday afternoon, Michael Pittman wondered if everything had come crashing to an abrupt end, just when his high-octane running efforts had finally revved it into gear.
Pittman lay on the Raymond James Stadium turf as the game wound down to its last two minutes in a 19-7 win over Chicago, feeling a burning sensation in his left knee he never had experienced.
He had watched fellow running back Mike Alstott helped from the field a quarter earlier with a serious knee injury. Now, it seemed as if Pittman, who had battled through painful back spasms throughout the game, might be following Alstott's path.
"I was kind of scared when I laid on the ground at first because I thought my knee was gone - it was burning pretty bad," he said. "But I stood up and started moving a little bit, and it eased up a little bit. I feel pretty good now."
And that's even better news for the Bucs, whose beleaguered ground game now hinges on the muscular legs of No. 32, who finished with 109 yards on 23 carries and a touchdown and whose 46-yard pass reception from Brian Griese in the first quarter helped stake Tampa Bay to a 3-0 lead.
Surpassing 100 yards rushing had some added significance for Pittman. It was the first such performance for a Buc since Thomas Jones, now with the Bears, rushed for 134 yards Dec.14 against Houston. The last time Pittman passed the century mark was nearly a year ago, Oct.26 in Dallas.
It was a welcome showing from a man who was largely overlooked in recent months. Pittman was the forgotten Buc, facing a three-game suspension at the start of the season for violation of the league's conduct policy. In the meantime, the spotlight shifted to ex-Raider Charlie Garner and a revitalized Alstott to propel the ground attack. But with their seasons ended by injury, suddenly the burden is on Pittman to carry the load.
Aside from a costly fumble, he seemed more than up to the task.
"I've just got to step up to the plate and play my butt off," he said. "Coach Gruden already told me, of course, that they're going to lean on me. And this is a challenge I've just got to accept. I just need to go with it. I feel bad, of course, for Charlie and Mike. It's an unfortunate situation that happens, but the team has got to move forward."
Pittman gave most of the credit to the blocking and overall play of the offensive line: "The holes were there. There were a couple of times that I didn't get out of the backfield, but they were playing hard."
Actually, Pittman made his initial impact in the game as a receiver - running out of the backfield and beating Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher down the right sideline. The resulting 46-yard gain gave the Bucs a first down at the Chicago 25, leading to Martin Gramatica's 22-yard field goal.
Pittman's most impressive run came late in the half, with the Bucs facing a third and 15 from Chicago's 25. He made a nifty move at the line and cut across grain for a 19-yard gain to the 6. Griese followed with a touchdown toss to rookie Michael Clayton, lifting the Bucs to their 10-0 lead. "That was a big run," he said. The offensive line sealed the back side and I cut it back, and it was a big hole."
Pittman, however, nearly undid all his good work in the third quarter. With Tampa Bay ahead 13-0, he fumbled on a second and six from his 30. The Bears recovered, paving the way to Jones' 1-yard touchdown run and pulling to within striking distance, 13-7 with 3:45 left in the quarter. It was the second consecutive week Pittman suffered a costly fumble, his other one contributing to Tampa Bay's 28-21 loss last Monday night in St. Louis.
"It's something I've got to work on," he said. "I'm holding the ball like a loaf of bread and that's my fault. It's something I need to work on."
Having missed the early part of the season might have turned out to have benefitted Pittman.
"I think I'm a little fresher than the average guy out there because I did miss the first three weeks," he said.
"I had a good game today and hopefully I can turn it on and take my game to another level and just help this team win."