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Backfield roles might change Sunday

Bucs' biggest game of the season could see Warrick Dunn receiving more and Mike Alstott rushing more.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 21, 2001

TAMPA -- As they prepare for the most important game of the season, the Bucs might be considering a subtle change in their offense.

And one of their Pro Bowl running backs doesn't like the idea.

Warrick Dunn likely will start at running back Sunday against New Orleans, but Mike Alstott might get the bulk of the carries. Though he would play as much as ever, Dunn's role might be more as a receiver and third-down back.

"Ultimately, how every team in the league does it is that one guy is the main ball carrier, the other guy backs him up," Dunn said. "If that becomes my role, then that's less big plays I could possibly make, less time on field. We'll just see."

Dunn, who has been bothered by an injured toe, gets 2.7 yards per carry and Alstott gains 3.9. With Tampa Bay's running game struggling and its playoff chances on the line, the team likely will pin its hopes on the hotter hand.

"I think it's been weird because with the running game struggling, once one thing is starting to work, you want to stick with it," Dunn said. "So, I don't know. My role could be diminished and I could become a third-down back. Would I be happy? No!

"Right now, I'm starting to get healthy and I tried to point out to coach (Tony Dungy) that last week was the first week that I had a burst after my run, I wasn't favoring anything. So, I don't think they want to take me out of the game plan. But they want to be productive in the running game and the way I run sometimes, it's not favorable to our running attack."

Offensive coordinator Clyde Christensen wouldn't say the Bucs have committed to featuring Alstott, but he said it's a possibility.

"It would certainly be premature to say (Dunn's role will be diminished) ... but I would throw it out there with any other possibility," he said. "We don't see (Dunn) as a third-down back and he doesn't see himself exclusively as a third-down back. He's an every-down back who can be exceptional on third down. ... Last week, he had (more) carries than Mike and has played extremely well on third down. But we have to do some things to jump-start the running game."

Christensen said being considered a "third-down" back is no slap in the face. He said teams covet a player who can come out of the backfield, make catches downfield and still be capable of picking up a blitz.

"The definition of a third-down back is a guy who can come in on third down and have receiving skills enough that he can beat coverage and go get a third and 10 and can still protect and read all the blitz pickups," Christensen said. "He's got to be able to beat the nickel guy. A third-down back has got to be able to shake you. A third-down back is invaluable. They are hard to find."

Christensen said Rams running back Marshall Faulk and a healthy Dunn are the league's two best backs on third down and pointed out their ability to catch the ball and pick up yards after the catch are critical.

"If Warrick stays healthy he may be an 85-catch guy," Christensen said. "He's got 61 right now and he has missed (two) games."

Dunn said he doesn't see himself as a third-down back.

"I'm not going in with my eyes shut," he said. "I'm not stupid. ... It's a diminished role. In the running game, their thing was to protect me a little bit but sometimes I think that may hurt me. Is it a confidence thing? Or is it that they feel this is the route I'm going. ... I can't control what they do or think."

WIN WITH CLASS, LOSE WITH CLASS: The recent images of beer bottles and other debris being thrown onto the playing field by fans in New Orleans and Cleveland is nothing new in the NFL, Dungy said. And it seldom represents the behavior of fans.

"We've seen it before," Dungy said. "It's a small minority of people that give the whole city or the whole state a bad name. It's generally not many people, but you hate to see it."

Asked if he thought fans at Raymond James Stadium would react in a similar fashion should they disapprove of a call, Dungy offered a suggestion.

"I think our fans understand that you can come out and cheer, you can express your frustrations, you can boo, all of that is expected," Dungy said."But, there are lines that you don't cross. We certainly wouldn't want our fans or expect our fans to do anything like we've seen in the last couple of games."

IS 10 THE MAGIC NUMBER?: It is a commonly held belief that 10 wins will get a team into the playoffs. The Bucs need to win all three games to get to 10. Mathematically, they can afford to drop one but not Sunday's against the Saints (7-6), who also are in the running for the final playoff spot.

"You never know what's going on," Dungy said. "But we know one thing for sure, if we don't beat the Saints, then we have to depend on them. We'll need them to lose two games at home, which you can't really count on. So for us, this eighth win is a real important one."

EARLY SCOUTING REPORT: Many of the Bucs stayed up late Monday night to watch the Rams-Saints game. The advanced scouting was particularly helpful because the Rams, with defensive coordinator and former Bucs linebacker coach Lovie Smith, have had success against the Saints using a defense very similar to the Bucs.

"It was kind of funny to watch, to see virtually our defense out there and see how they were attacking them," Dungy said. "I thought Lovie's guys did a good job."

INJURY UPDATE: Defensive tackle Warren Sapp (left shoulder strain), cornerback Ronde Barber (left hamstring strain), safety Eric Vance (right knee sprain) and receiver Frank Murphy (left ankle sprain) did not practice. Barber and Sapp are expected back on the practice field today, but Vance and Murphy likely will miss the Saints game.

Backup center/guard Todd Washington sprained his left knee during a running drill and didn't finish practice, but it isn't considered serious. With Murphy out, running back Aaron Stecker will return kickoffs. If Barber can't play, Donnie Abraham will start and rookie Dwight Smith will assume the nickel-back role.

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