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Tampa Bay Buccaneers


Running-game troubles on both offense and defense doomed the Bucs in Chicago and could endanger their playoff hopes


FB Mike Alstott powered for a nice nine-yard run early in Sunday's game, but the Bucs' rushing attack did little else against the Bears

When Tampa Bay and Chicago squared off in Tampa in mid-November, the Bears scored 27 points, beating the home team by three. The Bucs' running game failed completely, picking just 19 yards, but Brad Johnson and the passing game accounted for 399 yards to make up the difference and make the game a squeaker at the end.

In Sunday's rematch in Chicago, the Bears once again came up with 27 points, but this time Tampa Bay only scored three points. The running game sputtered once again, gaining 61 yards on 18 carries, but this time there was no huge passing day to rescue the Buccaneers.

Welcome to football in December.

Though Tampa Bay has had more success throwing the football in 2001 than in any of Tony Dungy's six seasons at the helm, and though the Bucs have won several games without much help from the ground attack, Dungy isn't fooled. He has said repeatedly in recent weeks, even as the Bucs passed and defended their way to a three-game winning streak, that you must run the ball well in December to win the important games down the stretch.

How thoroughly Sunday's game illustrated that point.

While the Bucs were running at a 3.4-yards per carry clip, thanks mostly to a 12-yard screen that was ruled a lateral and a late-game 12-yard gain on a draw play, the Bears were pounding away for 5.2 yards per carry. And that's saying something when you tote the rock 40 times. Chicago became the first time to rush for over 200 yards against the Bucs since Pittsburgh got 220 on October 21. Not coincidentally, those are the only two games the Bucs have not had a real shot to win at the end.

"We didn't step up and keep them from controlling the clock and controlling the game and they just got the momentum on us," said Dungy of the Bears game.

One could say that the Bears' 207 rushing yards were a little misleading, since only 45 of them came in the first half, when the game was still tight, and 95 came in the fourth quarter when Chicago ran on virtually every play to bleed the clock. But that would be missing the point. Late in the game when you have a lead is exactly when the running game is supposed to salt the game away. That's Dungy's textbook strategy, and Chicago Head Coach Dick Jauron's, apparently.

"We didn't install anything new for this week," said Jauron. "That's our offense. That's what we do. We did open the game up throwing the ball. We did want to do that and we knew we'd definitely get back to the run. We knew we had to run the ball to win, but we wanted to start the game throwing."

So where do the Bucs go from here? Dungy has said that the team needs to improve its running game, and that the talent is on hand to do so, but the results have yet to show up. Now, there is the added worry of the Bucs' run defense. After allowing 86 or fewer rushing yards to four of its last five opponents, Tampa Bay suddenly has concerns over whether it can limit an opponent's runner, just as Ricky Williams and the league's fourth-rated rushing attack is coming to town.

"We've opened up Pandora's Box in the run defense," said Dungy. "New Orleans and Ricky Williams, I'm sure, will look at this tape, so we've got to look at it, make the corrections, see what the problem was and go back to work on Wednesday."

There's reason to believe the Bucs will be able to do that, because the defense has been playing well of late, at least before the trip to Chicago. The run offense, on the other hand, has really only excelled in two games this season, in home wins over Green Bay and Minnesota. That doesn't mean the Bucs will abandon it and go to 70 passes a game.

"We have to keep working on it," said Dungy. "This time of year, you have to be able to stop the run, you have to be able to run it, you have to create some yourself and take care of the ball, and we didn't really do any of those things (against Chicago). We had some runs early in the game. Had we scored touchdowns, maybe it would have been a little different, but we didn't do that. We didn't run well enough or defend the run well enough."

More than anything, the Bucs don't want to be repeating those words on January 7, as six other NFC teams head to the playoffs.

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