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This time, late fumble proves costly

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 25, 2000


TAMPA -- The Bucs' offense had a plethora of mistakes in Sunday's 21-17 loss to the Jets, but the list of miscues was punctuated by Mike Alstott's late fumble. Again.

"I fumbled the ball and let my teammates down," Alstott said as he hurried from the locker room.

Alstott's problems with fumbles often have put the Bucs in precarious positions. Starting with the 1998 season, Alstott has lost 12 fumbles in 36 regular-season games, an average of one every three games.

In 1999, his six fumbles included miscues that forced the defense to come up with late stands against Denver and Kansas City.

The Bucs weren't as fortunate this time. After Alstott fumbled on the Bucs 24-yard line with 1:29 remaining, the Jets took two plays to score on an 18-yard halfback pass from Curtis Martin to Wayne Chrebet.

Alstott's history might be as big a problem as the fumbles because now teams specifically look to strip the ball late in the game.

"We were looking at the fact that (Alstott) is a guy who gives the ball up with his second and third efforts," Jets safety Victor Green said. "We knew that we had to get in there and try to get the ball."

The mistake was critical when you consider if the Bucs had gotten a first down, they likely could have run the clock out and preserved a victory.

Despite the problems, Bucs coach Tony Dungy said he won't shy away from giving Alstott the ball.

"Mike's the guy that's got to carry the ball for us in those situations, and he's got to make a first down and hang on to the ball," Dungy said.

Added running back Warrick Dunn: "The first thing a running back coach tells you, the first thing, when a game is close and you're trying to get a first down and run time off the clock is to hold on to the football, hold on to the football. It looks to me that he had both hands on the ball. They just made a great hit, and the ball popped out.

"He's probably going to take it hard because he feels like he's the reason why we lost the game. In reality, we didn't execute well throughout."

Dunn's perspective was echoed by Shaun King, who was 2-of-8 for 17 yards, an interception and a fumble in the second half. King's struggles contributed to Tampa Bay getting only three first downs in the second half.

"I don't think that's why we lost the game," King said of the fumble. "We lost the game because in the first three quarters we had so many chances to go ahead and put a knife in them and we didn't. We let them stay in the game, and we got to the point where one big play could cost us the game."

The Bucs also struggled to run the ball, protect King and avoid costly penalties. Dunn and Alstott combined for only 48 yards on 16 carries, and King was sacked twice. One drive was disrupted by a holding call on Jeff Christy, and another was aborted after King was flagged for intentional grounding. The final result: 235 yards of offense, 55 in the second half and a paltry 13 in the fourth quarter. It was by far the Bucs' most disappointing offensive effort of the year.

"It's embarrassing to lose to the Jets at home in front of the crowd after we go 3-0," guard Frank Middleton said. "We show everybody we can win and then take 10 steps backward."

Despite the problems, tight end Dave Moore said the offense has not lost faith in its system or Alstott. Moore said you must remember the team is 27-4 when Alstott scores a touchdown.

"How many games has Mike Alstott won for us? He doesn't want to fumble, and he's doing his job and fighting for every yard," Moore said.

"If we get a first down, the game's over. And he's doing everything he can to get a first down. It's not really something you can get mad at him about."

- Times staff writers Roger Mills and Scott Purks contributed to this story.

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