Often the first man through the hole, FB Mike Alstott has seen first-hand the running room Warrick Dunn has enjoyed
Hope you didn't blink, because you might have missed it.
That 11-man unit you saw on the field against the Minnesota Vikings' defense to start the game on Sunday was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense as it was penciled in this spring. After working through consecutive and barely overlapping injuries to quarterback Brad Johnson, fullback Mike Alstott, wide receiver Jacquez Green and center Jeff Christy, beginning in July, the Bucs finally got everybody back to health on Sunday.
It didn't last.
The latest offensive starter to go down is Warrick Dunn, who suffered a foot sprain in Minnesota. He is expected to miss three to four weeks.
While the Bucs responded to the aforementioned injuries by simply plugging in the next player on the depth chart – Shaun King, Jameel Cook, Frank Murphy and Todd Washington, respectively – the makeup plan for Dunn's absence will probably be more complex.
Alstott, FB/RB Rabih Abdullah and RB Aaron Stecker will combine to assume Dunn's carries in some manner. As by far the most accomplished and experienced NFL runner of those three, Alstott would figure to be at the center of that plan.
None of the players yet know what the coaches have in mind during Dunn's absence, so Alstott's Monday approach represented a team-player state of mind.
"It's a situation where all the backs really have to step up," he said. "Warrick is our nickel back, so Aaron and Rabih have to come in and play in that situation. Whatever the situation is at tailback, we have to take the load off as far as carrying the ball. Pretty much all of the running backs have to step up at this point.
"Whatever it takes. We'll see how it goes throughout the week. Whatever the game plan is, we'll stick with it."
Earlier in the day, Head Coach Tony Dungy indicated that Alstott would still be needed in his fullback role and that the solution to the Dunn conundrum would not be to simply move the team's Pro Bowl fullback completely to tailback. Still, it's reasonable to assume that Alstott's rushing load will increase from the four carries per game he was given in the first two contests, and that could bring back the highlight-reel runner Bucs fans know so well.
"If you're the ballcarrier, you've got to get in that rhythm," said Alstott. "You can't get just one or two carries in the first quarter and then three or four (later). You'd like to get in that rhythm, get going and establish your ground throughout the game.
"The opportunity to go out there and make plays, make things happen and help your team move the ball down the field is always exciting."
With Dunn prepared to handle the majority of the Bucs' running efforts this season, Alstott was thought of as a 'closer' of sorts. Tampa Bay planned to use the bruising runner to wear down defenses in the fourth quarter of games in which the Bucs led.
And Alstott was given the ball during the fourth quarter on Sunday, though that may also have been because Dunn was out. The result was the type of rugged, pinballing run that Alstott is known for, as he pounded through the middle of the Vikings' defense for three and 12 yards on consecutive carries. The Bucs came up empty on that golden scoring opportunity, but Alstott made it clear that he was recovered from his preseason hamstring injury.
"I'm fine," he said. "I'm playing every play since I came back – 70 plays the first game and in the high 40s this past weekend. I've been in every play and I feel good.
"Especially being in there the last two regular-season games, being in the mix of the game, I am comfortable. I've been progressing, getting better and doing some good things on the field. I've gotten a lot of reps."
Dunn, indeed, got almost all of the carries during the first two weeks, but more often than not Alstott was the fullback on the play. As such, he has seen the holes that have allowed Dunn to average 3.7 yards per carry so far, 5.9 in Minnesota.
"I'm pretty much the lead guy going through there and I see everything developing," said Alstott. "As a lead blocker, you're being a ballcarrier, too, because you've got to read the defense and read what's happening as far as the play setting up. Ninety percent of the time, unless it's a cutback play, the tailback follows the fullback into the hole.
"It's exciting with our offensive line. We have a great offensive line, and with our passing attack the way it's going, there are going to be a lot of opportunities for big runs."
Last November, when Alstott suffered a knee injury in November, Dunn used the increased spotlight to show how devastating he could be as a featured runner. Now, in the reverse situation, Alstott is merely intent on keeping the team's running game as a whole healthy.
"We're an attitude type of running attack," he said. "We have to pound the ball to be effective. You're going to get one or two yards on some plays and you're going to bust some big yards. They're going to stop you, but you have to keep at it. You're not going to stop us the full four quarters."