Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Proving Grounds

In addition to the Bucs’ late-season playoff chase, RB Warrick Dunn believes he has five games to prove himself as a feature back

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RB Warrick Dunn has five regular-season games to prove he can carry the rushing load without FB Mike Alstott

As a rookie in 1997, RB Warrick Dunn carried 224 times for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, leading the team with 978 rushing yards, averaging 4.4 yards per tote and becoming the only NFC first-year player to appear in the Pro Bowl. The next season, he tallied 1,206 yards on 245 carries in a near duplication of his stats.

Last year, however, Dunn's numbers dropped to 616 rushing yards and 3.2 yards per carry. It wasn't a demotion by any means, but the Bucs were finding greater use for big but nimble fullback Mike Alstott, as well as Dunn's role in the passing game. In fact, Dunn caught a team-leading 64 passes in 1999 for 589 yards. This season, Dunn is on pace for 833 rushing yards and is back up to 4.1 yards per tote.

But Dunn's role has still not been well-defined from a week-to-week standpoint. He averaged just over 11 carries per game through the team's first seven contests, rushing for as many as 56 yards (at New England, 9/3) and as few as three (at Washington, 10/1). In the last month, Dunn has clearly become the more favored ballcarrier, and he has posted an average of 74 yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry over the last four games. However, his workload still only adds up to 15 runs per game.

It appears likely that final stat will change over the last five weeks of the season, given the significant knee injury suffered by Alstott in Chicago last Sunday. Alstott will miss at least the rest of the regular season, and Dunn knows what that means for his bottom line.

"I'll probably be the main ballcarrier…I think I'll get the majority of the carries," said Dunn. "In short-yardage and goal-line situations, you might see Rabih because he's a little bit bigger than I am. But I don't think my role has really changed. I just have to make plays."

Like the rest of his teammates, Dunn would much prefer to have Alstott on the field but, given the situation, the Bucs' 5-8, 180-pound back plans to make the most of it.

"You can never get enough carries," he said. "I definitely didn't want these circumstances, but it is an opportunity for me. People have always doubted me because of my size. Now they're going to feature me for five games and we'll see what happens."

Because of his lack of height and his darting and cutting style, Dunn drew some early Barry Sanders comparisons during his rookie 1997 season, particularly when he had an outstanding game in Detroit's home stadium. Nobody truly expects any other back to live up to Sanders' legend, of course, but Dunn does think he shares at least one trait with the former Lion star.

"I'm durable," said Dunn. "Most backs take a lot of direct hits and cheap shots. I don't get hit as much."

Dunn's career chart would back up that claim. He's missed only game due to injury in his NFL career, which is nearing the end of its fourth season. During that time, he has had six games in which he was given 20 or more carries, and his averages in those games are strong: 91 yards per contest and 3.9 yards per carry. Moreover, the Bucs are 5-1 in that half-dozen selection of games.

None of those six games has occurred in 2000, but Dunn's not pining about for the 'good old days'. In fact, he is a fan of the team's new offense, which he feels has a more aggressive approach.

"We spread it out more," he said. "We attack. We're trying to score in the Green Zone, but we're trying to move the ball the whole game. We're playing all-out football. We're not playing in a phone booth…we play sideline-to-sideline and goal line-to-goal line. I like the progress we've made offensively."

And he's ready to become the driving force in that offense. Even this weekend against Buffalo, which ranks third in the NFL against the run, Dunn believes he can carry the load fro 60 minutes.

"The Bills play great team defense," he said. "They're always in the right place at the right time. They hardly give up any big plays in the running or passing game. We just have to be patient, take the garbage yards early and wear them down."

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