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Running nowhere

If Bucs don't fix a running game among NFL's worst, playoffs may be a pipe dream.

photo
[Times photo: Kevin White]
Bucs running back Mike Alstott, carries for a gain against the Rams. The Bucs’ rushing game is ranked 29th in the league in rushing offense.

By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times,
published December 4, 2001


TAMPA -- Any game now, the Bucs will try to begin their playoff run. It probably will result in a tackle for a loss.

That's because Tampa Bay's once effective rushing attack has ground to a halt.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Warrick Dunn gets swarmed by Bengals defenders Sunday, when he gained 42 yards on 21 carries.
Despite two running backs with a combined six Pro Bowl appearances, the Bucs rank 29th in the NFL in rushing offense. Their 79.8 yards per game would rank as the worst in team history.

In Sunday's 16-13 overtime win at Cincinnati, the Bucs were held to 65 yards on 30 carries. Ten attempts went for a loss and four resulted in gains of 2 yards or fewer.

"If we don't run better, we won't have to worry about (the playoffs)," coach Tony Dungy said. "And we're going to have to. We're not going to win all these games in December if we don't run the ball better than we have."

Only twice this season have the Bucs rushed for more than 100 yards, both against Minnesota (108 on Sept. 30 and 177 on Oct. 28).

Not coincidentally, the Vikings are pitiful against the run, ranked 27th with 133.5 yards per game.

Dungy said no lineup changes are planned on the offensive line. But in hopes of boosting the rushing attack, the Bucs have deployed more two tight end formations and might consider using rookie Jameel Cook more as a blocking fullback to open holes for Warrick Dunn and Mike Alstott.

"We've talked about that at times and Jameel has done a pretty good job when he's been in there, and that will be one of the things we'll investigate," Dungy said.

"The reluctance probably is that you're taking one of your best football players off the field. That's probably the biggest thing. Those are two very good players to just say we're not going to play them."

But in the past two seasons, Tampa Bay's best rushing performances have come when Dunn or Alstott was injured and the Bucs were forced to go with Cook or Charles Kirby at fullback.

With Alstott nursing a knee sprain in 2000, Dunn gained 520 yards during a four-game stretch. This season, with Dunn out with a foot sprain, Alstott rushed for 129 yards in a 41-14 win over the Vikings.

Since '97, the Bucs never have finished lower than 15th in the NFL in rushing and have never averaged fewer than 111 rushing yards. So why have they struggled?

To start with, they have two new starters on the offensive line, rookie left tackle Kenyatta Walker and second-year guard Cosey Coleman. That unit hasn't been good protecting the passer, either: The Bucs have given up 39 sacks, six Sunday against the Bengals. Only the Bills and Lions have allowed more, and they are a combined 1-21.

"There's a lot of different causes," Dungy said. "Sometimes it's a blocking assignment, sometimes we want to check a run a certain way and went the wrong way, sometimes we're just trying to make too much happen. Instead of just going up there and taking our 3 yards, we're trying to make the big run. So there are a lot of different reasons, but we've got to get those negative runs eliminated.

"We have to get it going and, believe it or not, (Sunday) we had some fairly good things going, but we just had too many negative runs. We had 10 runs where we lost yardage, and if we just even gain one yard on those 10 runs, instead of losing 15 or 20, we have a 100-yard day rushing. There's some holes there, there's some things we should be able to do, we've just got to be a little sharper and emphasize it more and get it done. I think we can do that. Those are the teams that usually win this time of year; they get stronger running the ball, and we have to do that."

It won't get easier. The Bucs have games at Chicago on Dec. 16 and against Baltimore on Dec. 29. The Bears rank third and the Ravens second in rushing defense.

The good news is that four of the Bucs' final five games are at Raymond James Stadium, beginning with Sunday's meeting with the 0-11 Lions.

And the Bucs control their destiny. At 6-5, they are tied with New Orleans and Atlanta for the final wild card. If the Bucs win out, including Dec. 23 at RJS against the Saints, they would make the playoffs no matter what Atlanta does because they have a better NFC record than the Falcons.

"I really don't think we have any (margin for error)," Dungy said. "We've kind of been in that situation for the last two weeks and I think it'll be that way the whole time, unless some teams in front of us fall apart, and they don't show any sense of doing that."

Catching anyone at this point would be tough for the Bucs. Especially when you can't run.

"It's not the same thing week in and week out," Dungy said. "We've just got to block better, we've got to hit the holes better, we've got to call the plays better. Everything has got to be better and there's not one specific thing you can point to."

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