RB Warrick Dunn has totaled over 1,000 yards in each of his three NFL seasons
Though they took somewhat different routes, Buccaneer running backs Mike Alstott and Warrick Dunn each reached the 1,000-yard mark in total yards from scrimmage on Sunday against Detroit. Nicknamed 'Thunder & Lightning' as a duo during Dunn's 1997 rookie campaign, Alstott and Dunn are once again displaying why they are considered perhaps the league's best backfield pair.
"It's good when you have two guys you can go to," said Dungy. "Both Mike and Warrick can get yards in different ways, which is important when a team tries to take away a certain part of your offense, like Detroit did with our running game last week. We're a conservative team…we believe in the running game and we're hopefully not going to throw 40-45 times a game. But it's good to know that when you're forced to throw it, you have guys that can make plays in the passing game, too."
That versatility that Dungy prizes has never been better illustrated than in the last two weeks. On Monday, December 6, Tampa Bay downed the Minnesota Vikings in a battle with first place in the NFC Central on the line despite not having the services of Dunn (sprained left ankle). Alstott pounded repeatedly up the middle in that contest en route to 95 rushing yards. Six days later, the Bucs won another fight for first place against the Detroit Lions even though the team ran a season-low 19 times. Dunn returned to catch six passes for 115 yards and Alstott scored two fourth-quarter touchdowns, one each rushing and receiving.
"We play to their strengths," said Dungy, "and we also play to what the defense is giving us. Both of those guys can get the job done in a variety of ways."
Alstott is the Buccaneers rushing leader with 800 ground yards, and he has added 213 yards on 21 catches for a combined total of 1013 yards. Dunn has been an equal threat on the ground or through the air, posting 500 rushing yards and 502 yards on a team-leading 52 receptions. Though neither Alstott nor Dunn rank among the NFC's top ten in total yards from scrimmage, they are the only pair of running backs from the same team to each reach the 1,000-yard plateau.
Alstott is on the verge of surpassing his career high of 846 rushing yards, set last year, and needs to average approximately 67 yards per game over the final three contests to record his first 1,000-yard rushing campaign. A bruising fullback who is uncommonly nimble for his size, Alstott has increased his rushing total in each of his NFL seasons, from 377 as a rookie to 665 in 1997 to last year's total. Those rising marks are an indication of the Buccaneers' growing confidence in Alstott as a feature back.
Still, that's a role he shares with Dunn, who has seen his rushing totals dip in 1999 thanks in large part to a variety of nagging injuries. However, the lightning-quick Dunn has fully compensated for that downturn by adding 502 yards on a team-leading 52 receptions. Dunn has not posted a 100-yard rushing game in '99, but he recorded 115 yards on six receptions last Sunday in Tampa Bay's win over the Lions. He is on pace for 1233 total yards from scrimmage, approaching his 1997 and 1998 totals of 1,440 and 1,370, respectively.
"I talked to Warrick about being patient, that the big plays would come," said Dungy, after Dunn got off to a slower-than-average start in 1999. "If he gets into the secondary, he's going to beat people. But you never know when those plays will come and you just have to keep pounding away."
One of those moments came at a crucial time against Detroit. Dunn turned a short pass in the right flat into a 68-yard gain late in the first half by racing through the Lions secondary down to the seven-yard line. Tampa Bay scored one play later to trim the Lions' 10-point lead down to three before the intermission. It stands as Tampa Bay's longest play from scrimmage this season.
Still, while Dunn and Alstott proved they can pick up yards and score points through the air against Detroit, Dungy still believes his powerhouse backfield has to be successful on the ground in the long run. "We need to get our running game back on track," said Dungy. "We haven't run it as well in the last three weeks. I still think you have to be able to run the ball in December."