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Bucs not going that extra yard

The team is at a loss to explain its surprising struggles in short-yardage situations.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


TAMPA -- The situation seems perfect for a team like the Tampa Bay Bucs.

When you have a bruising fullback who runs like a tailback and an offensive philosophy to run the ball the bulk of the time, what could be better than third and 1? Maybe second and 1? This season, that hasn't been the case for the Bucs. In fact, short yardage has at times been a nightmare.

What's the problem?

"It's really hard to pinpoint," said Mike Alstott, the man most defenses expect to get the ball in such situations. "It's a tough question to answer because maybe we should have executed (the plays) right or maybe something happened that shouldn't have happened.

"Or maybe you just give credit to the defense for flat-out stuffing us. (In the past,) we would convert those plays 90 percent of the time, but it's been a little bit on the low end this year."

It has been quite low. When the Bucs have needed 2 yards or fewer for a first down or touchdown, they have converted on 54 of 94 attempts (57.4 percent).

"That's kind of been a disappointment because that's one thing, particularly the last few years, that we were really good at, third-down conversions," center Tony Mayberry said. "Third-and-ones were kind of gimmes. We just haven't had success of late, and that's been the key to our downfall, not having enough plays to run early to get into a rhythm. I think we have to make those a premium. Especially when you've got a yard or less to go, you've got to make those."

There have been moments when the Bucs have pounded the ball with precision. But there also have been moments when the train was derailed.

At Minnesota, the Bucs were stopped five times in eight tries trying to get 2 yards or fewer. Against Kansas City, Alstott twice was stuffed on second and 1 and twice on third and 2. Not surprisingly, one of the worst efforts came in the 45-0 waxing at the hands of the Raiders. The Bucs were stopped on five of six short-yardage attempts, which included four incomplete passes and a 4-yard loss on a Rabih Abdullah run.

"Well, we've had times when we haven't executed and some teams have sold out to try to stop us on third and short," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "But, we have had some other times where we've made some plays. It hasn't been as bad as it was earlier on in the year. So, we've just got to take a good look at it and see it as a challenge."

The problem is not just Alstott. The fourth-year pro led the team with 949 yards on 242 carries, 3.9 yards per carry. In his first three seasons, the All-Pro averaged 3.9 yards, which erodes the theory he isn't running as straight ahead.

"I would say if anything, last year he was running a little more laterally," Shula said. "This year he's done a lot better.

"It's a great challenge no matter what. It's like anything else, you can take it the way you want to take it. You can take it as criticism. You can take it as a challenge and use it as a motivation."

Another problem could be opponents' tendency to play with eight, or sometimes nine, players within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Alstott agrees that he seems to be running through "a lot more traffic," but he said that fact should only open possibilities for other players.

"We're a patient team, we keep our poise," Alstott said. "We get the job done sooner or later. It happened again Saturday. We missed a third and 1 and then we come back with fourth and 1, and Tony says go for it and we get 6 yards or 5 yards."

-- Staff writer Ernest Hooper contributed to this report.

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