Tampa Bay's 31st ranked ground attack produced 150 yards of offense against Atlanta on Sunday. Was this a fluke or a sign of things to come from the Bucs' running game?
"Well, we made some runs," Bucs head coach Jon Gruden said. "We just played better. We have to give (offensive line coach/offensive coordinator) Bill Muir some credit and give the offensive line some credit. We have to give these guys a little bit of credit. They came off the ball, they got to their targets, and they finished some runs. We made some nice plays in the running game."
Before last Sunday's terrific outing, Gruden and Co. were exploring ways to improve its woeful running attack. The Bucs even explored the free agent market last week due to poor production and injuries sustained to its running backs, and the Bucs were reportedly very interested in acquiring running back Ricky Watters' services. Watters has not played football this season, but he spent his entire career in West Coast offenses (San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle), which made some think he would be a good fit in Gruden's version of the West Coast system. But the Bucs and Watters could not agree to terms, which killed the deal, for now.
"Well, we looked at a lot of backs last week and certainly talked about every back that was available," Gruden said Monday. "We lost Mike Pittman against the New Orleans Saints. We lost Aaron Stecker against the New Orleans Saints. We had Jameel Cook and Mike Alstott as our only two backs up, but I don't foresee any roster changes at this time unless there are injuries."
Whether the Bucs want to acknowledge it or not, there is a running back controversy brewing at One Buccaneer Place.
Should the Bucs feature RB Michael Pittman, who is averaging 3.2 yards per game and has gained 562 yards rushing this season or should they feature Bucs fullback Mike Alstott, who has rushed 13 times for 95 yards (7.3 avg.) against the Falcons and is averaging 3.7 yards per carry and has scored all four of the team's rushing touchdowns this season? While some think Gruden should feature one or the other, the Bucs will likely continue to take the running back by committee approach, which hasn't really been productive on a consistent basis this season.
"Mike Alstott is an excellent football player," Gruden said. "Pittman is an excellent player. Why doesn't Mike Alstott get all the carries? Mike really is a much different kind of back than Pittman. Pittman's catch and run at the end of the first half yesterday is a play I believe is exclusive to Pittman. I don't believe Alstott does that as well as Pittman. I'm not being negative, they're different kinds of backs. With that, there are different kinds of situations in football. We're trying to put the best back in the best situation. The distribution of carries is a concern, it is an issue, I know, with the players, and it always has been with me. We're trying our best to do what we need to do to function."
BUCS NOT LOOKING AT LIONS' RECORD:
Tampa Bay's next opponent of the 2002 season is the 3-10 Detroit Lions. Although the Lions have been somewhat competitive this season, some are wondering if the Bucs might overlook the Lions due to their unimpressive record. Gruden said his team can't afford to overlook anybody at this point in the season.
"It will be a challenge," Gruden said of going into Detroit and playing the Lions this Sunday. "I know playing on the road, number one is a difficult thing. They already knocked off the Saints at home. They're a tough team, especially in this dome. We don't put a lot of stock into records, and we realize we've got to play our best football. That's the key.
"No, I'm not worried about (having a letdown) at all. We've got a lot of unfinished business. All you have to do is talk to our players. The last thing they want to do is let down. They want to get on the gas pedal, throw the foot down, and see where we can go. We have to get to where we're going in a hurry, there's only 20 days left. You work your whole life for these kind of situations."
The Buccaneers are currently the No. 2 playoff seed in the NFC, but they still haven't actually clinched a playoff berth. There are only three weeks remaining in the regular season and the Bucs only lead the Saints by one game in the NFC South Division. Needless to say, Tampa Bay might have to win out if they're going to get at least one home playoff game. And with a little help, the Pewter Pirates could even get home-field advantage throughout the playoffs by winning its final three games of the season.
"It's very exciting," Gruden said of the NFC playoff race. "There's a lot of chips on the table. Anybody that's played cards knows that the pot is very, very big. It's a big hand every week now. Every move you make has a great impact on what's going to happen in the playoffs and down the road. We want to secure a spot in the playoffs. We want to get in the Super Bowl tournament, number one. We have unfinished business. We haven't qualified yet. There is a big picture, a big goal in mind that we're going to try to talk about in house here and try to remain humble and not let it be a distraction to take the focus off of Detroit."
GRUDEN PLEASED WITH LINEBACKERS' PLAY:
Tampa Bay's No. 1 ranked defense has several starters who are playing at a Pro Bowl-level. But Gruden has really been pleased with the play of linebackers Derrick Brooks and Shelton Quarles, who both played a big part in holding Atlanta quarterback Michael Vick to 15 yards rushing on five carries last Sunday.
Quarles, who leads the defense in tackles this season, has played a big part in stopping opposing offenses' rushing attacks.
"The thing about Quarles is he plays weakside linebacker, yesterday he plays in the middle, and he plays on the tight end.," said Gruden. "You know, there's only a handful of guys in football, I think, that have ever done that in a game. As a middle linebacker, when you talk about speed, I think Shelton Quarles is as fast as there is in the league at the middle linebacker position. He is a factor in our two deep scheme, running with the number two man down the field whether it's a tight end or a wideout. He has that ability and darned if he didn't make a couple of big plays yesterday."
Brooks, who recorded 10 tackles in the first half against Atlanta, has also played well this season. He made several open-field tackles against Vick on Sunday, but then again, Gruden said he's been doing that all season long.
"Well, this guy is an unbelievable open field tackler," said Gruden. "When he hits you, you go down. He's a sideline to sideline player. He can cover running backs and tight ends out of the backfield, and he can run with receivers down the seams. He gets off blocks, he's instinctive, he's got a great motor, and he's tough as hell. This guy, when it's all said and done, when the ball is snapped, he's one tough guy to block."
So, if he had to decide today, who would Gruden pick as his Most Valuable Player on the Buccaneers' defense?
"I would pick six or seven of our guys," said Gruden. "We've got seven guys that I think are deserving of that if we had to pick that award today. But that's for other people to pick. Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks, these guys have played tremendous football for us. Ronde Barber has been exceptional. We've got a group of guys that have played together. What they've done through 13 weeks is a great accomplishment, now we need more from them as the season winds down."
BUCS BOUNCING BACK:
By downing the Falcons last Sunday, the Buccaneers still have yet to lose back-to-back games this season. The Bucs won five straight games after its Week 1 loss to the Saints and they won four consecutive contests after its loss to Philadelphia. Tampa Bay rebounded from its 23-20 loss to New Orleans on Dec. 1 by defeating Atlanta, 34-10. Gruden said his team's ability to rebound from losses this season has been impressive.
"I think that's a great sign, a really good sign of a good football team," said Gruden. "You hit a bump in the road, you don't slam off the road into a tree and lay there for three weeks. You show resiliency, you strap it back on next week and start a new string of victories. I think our team understands that. The last thing you can do is afford yourselves a losing streak. You have to respond after a loss with your best football. We were able to do that in Baltimore. We were able to do that after the Philadelphia game, I believe, and play solid without our starting quarterback. We were able to find a way to win at Carolina, and we responded yesterday."
Those who viewed the Bucs-Falcons game on FOX or in person last Sunday probably noticed several interesting celebrations performed by Bucs players such as wide receivers Joe Jurevicius and Keenan McCardell along with running back Aaron Stecker during its 34-10 win over the Falcons. Gruden said his players were very emotional during its game against the Falcons due to the lack of respect his team received heading into that game, which could help explain some of the unusual celebrations.
"Well, on film there was a lot of that from the Falcon players," Gruden said of the celebrations. "Some of our guys may have taken that personally. You know, the quarterback on the other team said he was going to play his best game of all time, and I believe when our guys made some plays they may have…I don't know if mimic is a good word, but they did a little bit of that dance. It's not something we're proud of here, but I think emotionally they were at a very, very high level yesterday. They did some strange things expressing those emotions. I don't think it's really great for the game. It's been documented by the commissioner and people in the league that sideline displays and group displays take away from the game. It started with the Smurfs years ago in Washington. It just crops up every year, there's going to be a clique of players, a group of men that are just excited. I don't take it personally. I think there's just a lot of different ways to show your emotion and some of it is with bird walks, or duck walks, or whatever it may be."
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