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Stewart has Lions up, running

By Compiled by ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


PONTIAC, Mich. -- From the outside looking in, you would think James Stewart is running with the specter of Barry Sanders, the future Hall of Famer who was the Lions' ground game for 10 seasons before retiring in 1999.

But really, Stewart is simply trying to lift Detroit from the abyss created by the anemic '99 tandem attack of Ron Rivers and Greg Hill. With Sanders gone, Rivers and Hill managed to churn out only 77.8 yards a game.

Stewart was the coveted free agent brought in from Jacksonville this summer to bring a motor back to the Motor City's rushing game. The outlook doesn't necessarily involve filling Sanders' void.

"James doesn't look at it in that way and we don't either," Lions coach Bobby Ross said. "We just see him as another piece of the puzzle. We think we have good receivers, we think Charlie (Batch) is a good thrower. So we think the potential for our throwing game is pretty good.

"At the same time, our running game was minimal last year. What we've asked James to do is just come in here and give us a good, firm, established running game. I think up to this point and time, we've been very pleased with what he's done. He's done a fine job."

Ross may be pleased, but fans were expecting a little more. So was Stewart after an eye-catching preseason. So far, the sixth-year veteran has only 143 yards on 46 carries in two games. The 3.1 average hasn't grabbed much attention, and the Lions haven't scored an offensive touchdown.

The team believes it struck upon a key to success in the second half of last week's 15-10 victory over Washington. Stewart had 58 yards on eight carries, and there was nothing complex about Detroit's strategy of dealing with defensive tackles Dana Stubblefield and Dan Wilkerson.

"We started going right at them," Stewart said. "Basically, they want to line up those big guys and force us to run outside so their safeties can come up. The first carry of the game, the safety was there before I got outside. I was fortunate enough to stiff-arm him down. The second half we lined up and said, "We're going to come right at 'em.' They've got to line up and play, too."

The second-half performance also provided offensive coordinator Sylvester Croom encouragement for the remaining 14 games.

"We're close," Croom said. "There were several plays where we were just a block away from having a really, really big play."

ANOTHER FRIEND: Does Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson know everyone?

His friendly rivalries with New England cornerback Ty Law (Week 1) and Chicago cornerback Thomas Smith (Week 2) have been chronicled. Now comes word Johnson and Detroit cornerback Bryant Westbrook have a good relationship. They work out together in the same southern California gym in the off-season.

"I know him pretty well. I remember when we were talking about getting his contract," Westbrook said, laughing. "He told me he was going to break the bank and be the highest paid receiver, which he did.

"He's a good dude. He's a competitor, he works hard. You always like guys like that because he's not just talking, he's doing it also."

But there will definitely be serious competition -- on a team and personal level.

"Anything you do, you want to be the better man out there on the football field," Westbrook said. "After the game you're definitely going to be friends again, but out on the football field it's just like a battle, just like a war."

HEAVYWEIGHT: Lions offensive tackle Aaron Gibson is listed as a second-year player, but he's really a rookie after missing all of 1999 with a knee injury. Still, that hasn't stopped the 6-foot-4, 380-pound Wisconsin product from impressing the Bucs with his size and leg drive.

Ross said the Lions also like what they have seen of Gibson.

"We're not displeased with the way he's playing," Ross said. "He's a big guy and he's missed on some things. He missed on a great goal-line opportunity last week and that was very disappointing, but overall we haven't been displeased with his play. It's about where we expected it to be."

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