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Shared failings

Do too many Bucs want the ball? Alstott, Dunn and Johnson each want more touches.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 29, 2000


TAMPA -- Bucs coaches always have operated under an open-door policy. Last week, a revolving door seemed more appropriate.

On Monday, fullback Mike Alstott had a post-practice, heart-to-heart chat with offensive coordinator Les Steckel. On Wednesday, running back Warrick Dunn demanded an audience with Tony Dungy. On Thursday, Keyshawn Johnson chewed on Dungy's ear for lunch. On Friday, Dungy and Steckel kibitzed after the light workout.

Four-game losing streaks invite bellyaching, but Dunn may have summarized the cause for all the air clearing:

photo
[Times photo: John Pendygraft]
Fullback Mike Alstott has seen the ground game struggle but wants the ball more.
"Sometimes what can hurt is that you have too many stars."

The Bucs still are searching for an identity on offense, which might explain why Dunn and Alstott felt compelled to reintroduce themselves to the coaching staff.

After throwing the football like an Arena League team the past two games, Steckel has agreed the offense needs to make better use of the running game.

Tampa Bay's once-proud rushing attack has fallen to 18th in the NFL and neither Alstott nor Dunn has even sniffed 100 yards rushing in a game this season.

Even when they were successful, Dunn and Alstott were an afterthought.

Against the Lions, the Bucs combined for 5.7 yards per carry. But the Tampa Bay backfield tandem was involved in three rushing plays in the second half.

Hard to believe that a year ago Dunn and Alstott were playing under cute aliases such as WD-40, the A-Train or Thunder and Lightning.

"I always like to say winning is a great deodorant," said Fox pro football analyst John Madden, who will call the game today with Pat Summerall. "When they win, everyone likes everyone. It's the same thing with Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn. No one complained last year when they shared the position and got so close to going to the Super Bowl. Now they have a different offensive coordinator and people have found out it's maybe not all Mike Shula's fault. They're still the same players. When it was going well, you had names for those guys. Now that it's not going well, they have problems. Before, they were Mr. Outside and all those good things."

Alstott has been A-Train wreck. He committed game-shifting fumbles against the Jets and Lions. Steckel says he has not lost confidence in Alstott, but his play-calling suggests otherwise.

In the fourth quarter against the Lions Oct. 19, the Bucs passed on third and 2, third and 1, third and 2 and fourth and 2. The results: three incompletions and an interception.

A conventional theory for some of the woes is that Steckel, who had Pro Bowl tailback Eddie George at Tennessee, has struggled under the Bucs' two-back system.

"You have to have a whole philosophy behind each of those running backs," said former Bill receiver Steve Tasker, an analyst for CBS. "Basically, you have to incorporate two different offenses for one game. The thing I've learned about today's game is it's all about preparation. There's only so much time to get prepared for a team. You can't really incorporate 75 plays into a game plan and think you're going to have all of them razor sharp for the game."

Look around the NFL and the most successful running teams usually have a featured back. In fact, only three tandems of running backs have rushed for 1,000 yards in the same season in NFL history: the Dolphins' Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris in '72; the Steelers' Franco Harris and Rocky Bleier in '75 and the Browns' Ernest Byner and Kevin Mack in '85.

Dungy admits it would be easier for the Bucs if they had a feature back, but Dunn and Alstott both have been good enough to make the Pro Bowl and take Tampa Bay to the NFC Championship Game.

"I think you can win all different kinds of ways," Dungy said. "If you have two backs who are good players and you want to get the ball to them, a lot of people do that. We're not the only ones. We've got two backs that have been to the Pro Bowl, and I think it would be foolish for us to say one guy is going to get the ball 25 times and the other guy is not going to get it at all until the other guy gets hurt or gets tired. We wouldn't be utilizing our personnel the best. Now, it's not the easiest what we're doing. I think you'd have to say it's much easier with one guy being the runner."

Madden says the lack of a deep passing game is what has hurt the Bucs, who have seen defenses routinely put eight players near the line of scrimmage to stuff the run.

And too often, Steckel has put the game in the hands of 23-year-old quarterback Shaun King.

The result has been only one offensive touchdown in the past five quarters. After having 12 passes thrown to him against Detroit, Johnson has been more low-key about getting the football. He now says he needs to see it more in the red zone, and he may be right. According to Johnson, the four passes thrown to him near the goal line have resulted in two interference penalties, a touchdown and an incompletion.

This time, Johnson can get in line. Alstott has only had 12 carries in the past two games and is not being used in short-yardage situations. He declined all interview requests last week.

"We've shared the carries; it's worked before and it probably can work again," Dunn said. "But it's going to be tough because now everybody is that much more hungry, and you've just added another guy who wants the ball, also."

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