FB Mike Alstott isn't sure how the Bucs will get the ball into his hands in upcoming games, but he's ready for any role
Despite carrying the ball 28 times and pinballing off roughly 500 Minnesota Vikings on Sunday, fullback Mike Alstott was one of the few Tampa Bay Buccaneers not in the team's training room on Monday.
That doesn't mean Alstott wasn't feeling the impact of his impacts on Monday. Though he appeared healthy and energetic at the team's brief, late-afternoon practice, underneath was a full-body ache.
And it felt good.
"Sore, but a good sore," said Alstott of his own condition on Monday. "Something was accomplished. I was talking to Keyshawn (Johnson) the other day and I asked him how he felt. He said, 'I feel sore, but you know what? They're using me. They're using me when I'm sore.'
"It feels great to be sore. When you're not sore, sometimes you want to be."
The question of the hour is, Will Alstott experience the pleasure of this pain next Monday, and the Monday after that? How much abuse – or described alternately, how much of an opportunity – will the A-Train absorb the rest of the season?
Yet again, the Buccaneers are in a position to redefine the roles of their two Pro Bowl running backs, Alstott and Warrick Dunn. The two have worked well in tandem through much of their careers – early on earning the nickname 'WD40' – and yet at times the effort to utilize them both has seemed counterproductive.
And so it seemed to be a revelation last season when, after half a season of less-than-satisfactory rushing results, Dunn became the sole ballcarrier when Alstott was sidelined for a month with a knee injury. In six-and-a-half games as the featured back, Dunn carried 124 times for 635 yards and seven touchdowns.
It was enough to make new Offensive Coordinator Clyde Christensen proclaim during the offseason that Dunn would continue to get the bulk of the carries. Alstott, it was presumed, would block, pound away in the fourth quarter of close games, get an occasional carry earlier in the game and pick up some yards on receptions.
That plan has been at least temporarily sidetracked by foot and hamstring injuries to Dunn, causing him to miss two games. In those two contests, home games against division rivals Green Bay and Minnesota, Alstott has moved to tailback and run the ball 43 times for 206 yards and four touchdowns.
Alstott's success cannot be ignored. Not only has the surprisingly nimble 250-pounder shown the same mix of power and shake that propelled him to 949 yards in the Bucs' division-winning 1999 season, but he has also provided the big plays that are Dunn's trademark. He had six carries of 10 or more yards in his two tailback starts, including a 39-yard, game-winning touchdown run against Green Bay.
Brilliant performance, almost enough to make one forget about Dunn and what he has proven he can do. Almost.
As you would expect, Head Coach Tony Dungy fielded question after question Monday regarding who would be the Bucs' feature back when Dunn returned to health, which could be as soon as this week. It's instructive in assessing the issue to realize that Dungy doesn't even buy into that term.
"I'm not really sure what that is," said the coach of the notion of a 'feature back'. "We know who our big-play guys are and who we've got to get the ball to. They can get the ball in a lot of ways. I guess it's one thing to say we're doing this or doing that, or using this guy, but we've got to use everybody."
The most concrete portion of Dungy's answer to the question of his two-back dilemma is that he plans to get both backs onto the field at the same time as often as possible. That would put Alstott back into the fullback spot in the two-back alignment, but there would also be single-back opportunities for both Alstott and Dunn when one or the other flared out as a third receiver. Alstott could also get carries out of the fullback position and might see his receptions total increase.
"I don't know how we have to do it," said Dungy of utilizing both of his productive backs. "We've gone into the season saying, 'We want to get the ball to those guys.' We've got guys that can make plays, and we know we can't come out of games with Mike getting the ball three times like he did in two of the games that we played. Now, a lot of that was a function of being behind and not converting our third downs."
Dungy points out that Alstott's big day on Sunday, as impressive as it was as an individual effort, was also the product of improved offensive line work and tenacious downfield blocking by receivers, backs and tight ends. He noted that Dunn averaged 5.9 yards per carry against Minnesota a month ago, rushing 11 times for 65 yards and turning in a six-yard touchdown run that looked a lot like Alstott's second score on Sunday.
"Again, to me it's not so much what we do or who we're going to get the ball to," said Dungy. "Aaron Stecker averaged about six yards a carry yesterday. That's not to say Mike didn't do a good job, but we can't look at it and say, 'Just because Mike Alstott was the ballcarrier that's why we got things going.' We got things going because we blocked well, we blocked downfield, we caught the ball and Mike ran hard. But Aaron ran hard and Warrick will run hard when he gets in there. It's just a matter of us finishing off."
Alstott took the team approach on Monday without even a hint of insincerity. As gratifying as a 28-carry day is, he's ready to accept whatever role is carved out for him.
"That's not my job to tell," said the Bucs' third all-time leading rusher (Dunn is second). "My job is, when I get the opportunity, to make things happen. Whatever the coaches decide – I know it's hard to come up with strategies to do that, especially with the situations that happened the three weeks prior to the Minnesota game. It's difficult to keep us both on the field at the same time (when the team is trailing). When you've got to go to four and five-wide receiver sets, it's impossible. If we play like we did yesterday, stay in our game and play Buc football, keep us both on the field, you'll see great efforts from both of us."
Dungy pointed to another Minnesota game as illustration, a 1998 affair in which Alstott piled up 128 yards and Dunn 115. Offensive efficiency and, particularly, good work on third down simply increases the opportunities for everyone and makes it possible for both backs to prosper in the same game.
Still, that's the only game in team history in which two backs each rushed for 100 yards. It may be that Dunn and Alstott will have to make their contributions in different ways to keep the Bucs' offense moving.
"You never know what's going to happen," said Alstott. "From here on out, I might not carry the ball for four or five games, but I might catch five, six, seven, eight passes a game. You never know what the game holds, and that's why you have to be on your toes.
"There are different situations. Before, with Warrick being the main ballcarrier, my situation was short-yardage, goal line and maybe pounding the ball when they get tired, running the ball out at the end of the game.
"Getting me in the passing game is another situation, too – however they want to feed it to me. Maybe I'll get five or six catches in the flat, checking down, and get into the secondary that way. There are other ways. Whatever happens, let's just get some 'W's."
It may even come down to a week-by-week matter of game-planning.
"We'll look at how we want to attack the other team and what we want to do," said Dungy. "Do we want to be a two-back attack? Do we want to be a three-wide attack? Do we want to be a two-tight end attack? But all four of our backs can run all the plays, so I don't think that's going to be the biggest focus.
"We know we've got to get Warrick the ball when he gets back and when he's healthy. When he's not, it's a good feeling though that we have Mike and Aaron – I think Rabih Abdullah could do a lot of the same things if he got the chance. I don't think it's necessarily who's in there, it's how you're doing it."
The Bucs did it very well on Sunday, with Alstott leading the way. That may have led to a little extra soreness for the four-time Pro Bowler, but that was balanced on Monday by a very enjoyable experience in the film room. Alstott even claimed that watching the tape of the game – seeing receivers throwing crucial blocks downfield and observing how the whole team became pumped up by his more impressive runs – felt better than actually playing in the game.
"We just need to bottle that up and take it with us to Green Bay," said Alstott of Monday's enthusiasm.
That might help the Bucs come away with a rare but critical win at Lambeau Field. Even more helpful would be a return to glory of the Bucs' WD40 attack.