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1 Tampa Bay Bucs Uncertainty at running back won't be enough to derail a return trip to the Super Bowl

Sept. 01, 2003
Sept. 01, 2003

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Sept. 1, 2003

NFL Preview 2003

1 Tampa Bay Bucs Uncertainty at running back won't be enough to derail a return trip to the Super Bowl

By Jeffri Chadiha Projected lineups and PVRs compiled by David Sabino

Jon Gruden has never had a problem exuding confidence. It's in
his determined walk and chilling gaze, which can unnerve even the
most hardened opponent. More than anything, it's in his smirk.
When the Tampa Bay coach curls and purses his lips, he's telling
the world he has everything covered. Gruden smirks often when
asked about his running game.

This is an article from the Sept. 1, 2003 issue

But why is this man smiling? While the Bucs have nearly
everything else in place from last year's Super Bowl championship
team--including nine starters returning to the NFL's top-ranked
defense--they have no clear idea who will be carrying the ball.
Gruden's top choice is Michael Pittman, who led the Bucs in
rushing (718 yards) last season and gained 124 yards in the Super
Bowl. Pittman, however, was charged with two counts of aggravated
assault following an altercation with his wife, Melissa, in
Phoenix on May 31; each count carries a penalty ranging from five
to 15 years in prison. A pretrial hearing is scheduled for Sept.
3. If convicted, Pittman would be in violation of the probation
he's serving for misdemeanor charges of criminal trespassing and
criminal damage after arguing with Melissa in 2001, for which the
league suspended him for one game. He could be sentenced to as
much as six months in jail for violating probation.

"We're obviously hoping that Mike will be available, but we do
have other options," says Gruden, whose offense ranked 27th in
rushing (97.3 yards per game) last season. "We have Thomas Jones.
We have Aaron Stecker. We have Mike Alstott. Those are all good
backs. But it's not just the backs who will help us run the ball.
It's the line, the tight ends, the decision-making by the
quarterbacks and my play-calling. All those factors play a role."

Pittman, who isn't speaking publicly, is the player who impressed
Gruden most early in camp, particularly with his conditioning. If
he's not available, the Bucs would be forced to lean on the same
backfield-by-committee approach that brought Gruden success in
Oakland. The top threat in that scenario would be Jones. Tampa
Bay traded for the fourth-year veteran shortly after Pittman's
arrest, thinking the former first-round bust of the Cardinals
might benefit from playing in a winning atmosphere. Jones is a
shifty runner and a polished receiver who needs to stay healthy.
(Last year he missed one game with a hairline fracture in his
left ankle and six games with a broken left hand, but still
gained a career-high 511 yards.) Stecker, one of the Bucs' top
special teams players, has vision, patience and good hands,
making him valuable as a third-down back. Alstott is the banger
who will carry primarily on goal line and short-yardage
situations.

"Gruden will find a way to make it work," says Bucs quarterback
Brad Johnson. "He knows how to utilize each person to the best of
their abilities. Even with Michael available, there won't be one
featured guy. The only question is how to get everybody enough
touches."

Tampa Bay has all its key offensive playmakers back from a unit
that averaged 26.4 points in its last seven games. Johnson led
the NFC with a 92.9 passer rating. He still has big targets like
Keyshawn Johnson, Keenan McCardell and Joe Jurevicius. And the
line, the unit that struggled with chemistry issues and
ineffectiveness early in 2002, has stabilized. "We had a lot of
new faces up front last year, but now we know each other," says
tackle Roman Oben. "And we know what to expect."

That--and, of course, the defense, which led the league last
season in fewest points allowed (12.3 per game)--will be
essential to Tampa Bay's hopes of repeating this season. By the
way, Gruden doesn't even use the word repeat. "We talk about
winning a championship, not defending one," he says. "Let's talk
about what we know, and we know how to win a title."

That said, the Bucs know that a healthy running game was an
important factor in their march to the title. If the running game
isn't in place, Gruden will have to work overtime to keep the
smirks off the faces of Tampa Bay's opponents. --Jeffri Chadiha

COLOR PHOTO: HEINZ KLUETMEIER COMING THROUGH The Bucs aren't sure who'll make the bulk of their carries, but Jones will get more than a few.COLOR PHOTO: NFL PHOTOS SMITHCOLOR PHOTO

UNDER THE GUN

JOHN WADE takes over at center for Jeff Christy, who, though
released because he was past his prime, was smart and excelled at
making line calls. The 6'5" Wade will have to mesh quickly with a
unit that struggled to jell early last season. Although he has
the toughness and strength, Wade's quickness and mobility leave
much to be desired.

ENEMY LINES
An opposing scout's view

"They lost Al Singleton [at linebacker] and picked up Dwayne Rudd,
which I think hurts them. Rudd's not as aggressive or instinctive
as Singleton. Plus he's a natural weakside linebacker who's
moving to the strong side. Putting him with Derrick Brooks and
Shelton Quarles gives them three weakside linebackers playing
alongside one another. Those guys can all run, but I think Rudd
will be a weak link.... Switching Dwight Smith from nickelback to
free safety is a great move. He has range, and he'll hit you. I
see only two problems: When you move to a thinking position and
have to call defenses, it can hinder your aggressiveness, and it
leaves a hole at nickelback. When Smith was there they could put
him on an island and he'd cover everybody. He also allowed
[defensive coordinator] Monte Kiffin to send Ronde Barber on
blitzes.... On offense Brad Johnson is their most valuable
player. He doesn't have a great arm, but he's good at throwing
those short crossing routes.... They can repeat, but it will be
harder to win it all this year. They have a tougher schedule, and
everybody is going to be gunning for them. The key is, Are they
still hungry?"

SCHEDULE

Sept. 8 at Philadelphia (Mon.)
14 CAROLINA
21 at Atlanta
28 Open date

Oct. 6 INDIANAPOLIS (MON.)
12 at Washington
19 at San Francisco
26 DALLAS

Nov. 2 NEW ORLEANS
9 at Carolina
16 GREEN BAY
24 N.Y. GIANTS (Mon.)
30 at Jacksonville

Dec. 7 at New Orleans
14 HOUSTON
20 ATLANTA (SAT.)
28 at Tennessee

SCHEDULE STRENGTH

NFL rank: 4
Opponents' 2002 winning percentage: .539
Games against playoff teams: 8

PROJECTED STARTING LINEUP with 2002 statistics

2002 RECORD: 12-4
NFL RANK (rush/pass/total):
OFFENSE 27/15/24
DEFENSE T5/1/1

COACH: Jon Gruden; second season with Tampa Bay (50-30 in NFL)

MICHAEL PITTMAN

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
RB 88 204 718 3.5

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
59 477 8.1 1

BRAD JOHNSON

POS. PVR ATT. COMP. %
QB 31 451 281 62.3

YARDS TDs INT. RATING
3,049 22 6 92.9

MIKE ALSTOTT

POS. PVR ATT. YARDS AVG.
FB 97 146 548 3.8

REC. YARDS AVG. TDs
35 242 6.9 7

KEYSHAWN JOHNSON

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 83 76 1,088 5

KEN DILGER

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
TE 204 34 329 2

ROMAN OBEN

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LT 6'4" 305 lbs. 16 16

KERRY JENKINS

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
LG 6'5" 305 lbs. 15 15

JOHN WADE[1]

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
C 6'5" 299 lbs. 16 16

JASON WHITTLE[1]

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RG 6'4" 305 lbs. 14 14

KENYATTA WALKER

POS. HEIGHT WEIGHT GMS. STARTS
RT 6'5" 302 lbs. 13 13

KEENAN MCCARDELL

POS. PVR REC. YARDS TDs
WR 114 61 670 6

DEFENSE

RE SIMEON RICE 50 tackles 15 1/2 sacks
RT WARREN SAPP 47 tackles 7 1/2 sacks
LT ANTHONY MCFARLAND 20 tackles 1 1/2 sacks
LE GREG SPIRES 37 tackles 3 1/2 sacks
OLB DWAYNE RUDD[1] 62 tackles 1 sack
MLB SHELTON QUARLES 113 tackles 1 sack
OLB DERRICK BROOKS 118 tackles 5 int.
CB RONDE BARBER 75 tackles 2 int.
SS JOHN LYNCH 64 tackles 3 int.
FS DWIGHT SMITH 26 tackles 4 int.
CB BRIAN KELLY 66 tackles 8 int.

SPECIAL TEAMS PVR

K MARTIN GRAMATICA 136 32/32 XPS 32/39 FGS 128 PTS.
PR KARL WILLIAMS 286 43 RET. 9.5 AVG. 1 TD
KR AARON STECKER 319 37 RET. 25.2 AVG. 0 TDS
P TOM TUPA 90 PUNTS 42.8 AVG.

[1] New acquisition
PVR: Player Value Ranking (explanation on page 89)

"Johnson doesn't have a great arm, but he's good at throwing
those short crossing routes."