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RUNNING in the right direction

Michael Pittman plays through pain to gain 109 yards on the ground and 55 through the air and score a touchdown.

RICK STROUD
Published October 25, 2004

TAMPA - He's not the running back the Bucs were faulted for letting get away nor the one missed when sent away.

He isn't the ball carrier who gets the loudest ovation or takes the air out of the stadium when he gets hurt.

But against Chicago, Michael Pittman simply looked like the best player on the field.

Until Sunday, he also might have been the most overlooked.

Forced to leave the game on several occasions with back spasms and a sprained right knee, Pittman rushed for 109 yards and a touchdown in the Bucs' 19-7 victory over the Bears.

Combined with his 55 yards receiving, he represented 56 percent of the Bucs' offense.

And to think this was a guy who had trouble keeping up with the Joneses. Specifically, Pittman could not avoid comparisons to Bears running back Thomas Jones, his former teammate at Arizona and Tampa Bay who entered as the NFC's fifth-leading rusher.

Jones, who signed with Chicago during the offseason, finished with 52 yards and a touchdown on 13 carries and three catches for 13 yards. But his 77-yard touchdown catch on the Bears' first play was nullified by David Terrell's offensive pass interference penalty.

"It kind of gets old when they keep comparing me and Thomas," Pittman said. "It wasn't about me versus T.J. It was about us just trying to win a ballgame."

The Bucs (2-5) managed to accomplish that against the poorly quarterbacked Bears (1-5). But their second victory in three games heading into the bye week might have been costly.

Fullback Mike Alstott sustained an injury to the medial collateral ligament in his right knee, one the team fears could end his season.

The injury occurred late in the third quarter when Alstott swept to his left and was tackled for a 4-yard loss by Hunter Hillenmeyer, forcing a fumble recovered by safety Mike Green.

Alstott grabbed his right knee, was carried off the field and later left Raymond James Stadium on crutches and wearing a plastic cast. He will have an MRI exam today to determine the extent of his injury.

"I want to see what the doctors say, but I'll be back," Alstott said.

Alstott's injury tempered another comeback story for the Bucs.

Joe Jurevicius, who had knee and back surgery, made his first appearance since Nov.30, catching two passes for 21 yards. Jurevicius, who tore the MCL in his right knee after colliding with Alstott in Week 2 against Carolina last season, said the A-Train will run again.

"You know how hard it is to come back in this game," Jurevicius said. "It's just frustrating because of the circumstances. The guy comes back after (a neck) injury that some people said should end a career. He comes back. He's been strong for this football team, made tough runs, and now he's dinged up again."

Pittman, suspended for the first three games for violating the NFL's conduct policy, battled back spasms before he arrived at RJS Sunday.

They began in practice Friday, but he hoped the massages and other treatment would take care of the problem. It didn't.

The Bucs made Pittman the workhorse during consecutive 93-yard scoring drives, including a 46-yard catch over linebacker Brian Urlacher to set up the first of two Martin Gramatica field goals.

On the Bucs' first touchdown drive, Pittman carried four times for 40 yards, including a 19-yard burst on third and 15 from the Chicago 25. Brian Griese then hit rookie Michael Clayton on a 6-yard pass to give the Bucs a 10-0 halftime lead.

After his third-down run, Pittman hobbled to the sideline with back spasms.

"It started in my lower back, down through my butt and down to my knee," Pittman said. "And once it hit, it numbed my whole left side down to my knee and was like a burning sensation at the same time. I just tried to play through it. It would come and go. It was hard to play through it, but I did."

Not that Pittman played a perfect game. For the second straight game, he lost a fumble that led to a touchdown. Jones capped a 31-yard drive with a 1-yard run to cut the lead to 13-7.

One series later, Alstott's fumble at the Tampa Bay 29 put the outcome in jeopardy.

But the Bucs defense, which limited quarterbacks Jonathan Quinn and rookie Craig Krenzel to a combined passer rating of 46.1, rose to the occasion.

On third and 10 from the 34, Krenzel was sacked by blitzing linebacker Shelton Quarles, one of the Bucs' four sacks, including two by Simeon Rice.

Krenzel completed just 9 of 19 passes for 69 yards in relief of Quinn. His tipped pass that was intercepted by Ronde Barber in the fourth quarter led to the clinching touchdown, a 3-yard run by Pittman.

"We lose Mike Alstott. We've got to lean on him more," coach Jon Gruden said of Pittman. "You get a lead and what you do in those situations ... is pound the rock and run the football. The clock is the enemy, and we had to rely on Pittman. He's a great gut check. He's a tough guy."

Turns out, the Bucs might be just as resilient. The NFC South is one of the league's weakest divisions. The Falcons were beaten Sunday 56-10 by Kansas City, the Bucs' next opponent Nov.7. And the Saints and Panthers have losing records.

"(Pittman) showed resilience, especially coming back after fumbling the ball," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "He ran big, and when Alstott got hurt, he shouldered the running game. We wanted to establish the running game, and obviously, that took plays away from Chicago. Any time you face (our defense) and we're fresh, that's not good news."

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