Tampa Bay Buccaneers

The Undercard

The focus is elsewhere, but the Bucs’ running game hopes to get rolling against the Rams

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FB Mike Alstott in the end zone has meant success for the Buccaneers

Buccaneers.com got a peek at the manifest for the team's charter flight to St. Louis on Friday and can now verify that, yes, there are seats set aside for the team's offense.

You might not think so, listening to the week-long analysis of this Sunday's NFC Championship Game between the Buccaneers and Rams. The match-up between the Rams' ultra-potent offense and the Bucs' utterly fearsome defense has rightfully drawn top billing, even making St. Louis' sixth-ranked defense a forgotten entity. Likewise, Tampa Bay's offense has been very much a secondary topic this week.

Nevertheless, there will be a very important undercard to Sunday's big-time battle between the conference's top offense and defense. Tampa Bay's offensive ranking is well below the Rams, but it has often been effective this season and will need to be in the Trans World Dome for the Bucs to move on to the Super Bowl. More than anything, that means getting the Bucs' potentially potent running attack moving downhill.

And that usually means a big dose of FB Mike Alstott. Though the focus of the Bucs' ground attack can shift quickly from Alstott to the small but speedy Warrick Dunn, Alstott led the team in rushing with 949 yards and in touchdowns with nine. The 248-pound wrecking ball led the Bucs in rushing in nine games this season (playoffs included), and Tampa Bay went 8-1 in those contests. He has a way of grinding down the defense if the Buccaneers are successful enough to keep his carries coming.

"We just need to stay in our style," said Alstott on Thursday. "Don't get out of our rhythm, control the tempo of the game and stick with it. I think if we stick with it throughout the game, the big plays will come."

Alstott's reference to 'big plays' is to the 15 and 20-yard runs that inevitably pop up when the Bucs continue to pound with their running game, a big plus in a hostile road game when the crowd can affect the timing of the passing game. In 1999, Tampa Bay's offense posted 53 carries of 10 or more yards, as opposed to 31 for its opponents. The Bucs broke through for five long runs in the season-ending win at Chicago, four in a victory at New Orleans, six in a win at Philadelphia; in the team's only two losses in the last 11 games, at Detroit (10/31) and at Oakland (11/19), it combined for three big runs, none longer than 14 yards.

That perfectly illustrates the importance of establishing the running game to Alstott. "It's always big," he said. "When you get more opportunities and stay on the field longer, you make more big plays. If we keep their offense off the field and control the ball, be aggressive and just do the things we normally do, we'll be in good shape."

The Bucs will be in even better shape if Alstott can find the end zone, as he did against Washington last Sunday, with a dazzling broken-field two-yard run. Alstott's score was just the icebreaker for the Buccaneers, who were trailing 13-0 at the time, but it came as little surprise that the team went on to win after that. Amazingly, in the 28 regular-season games that Alstott has scored at least one touchdown since becoming a Buccaneer, his team has a 24-4 record.

Of course, Alstott will be looking for running room against the National Football League's first-ranked rush defense, a unit that gave up just 74.3 ground yards per game in 1999, 13 less than the next-best NFC squad, Tampa Bay. While it is certainly a valid point that almost-weekly big leads by St. Louis led many opponents to abandon the run early, that does not diminish the Rams' accomplishment.

"They're very good," said Alstott of the Rams' defensive unit. "They've got a lot of talent. They're very aggressive, they fly to the ball and they're playing well right now. They've got a lot of confidence. We just have to go up there and not worry about them too much as far as far as their schemes, pick up their blitzes and be on top of our game."

As simply put as that is, it could be crucial. Tampa Bay was nearly flawless this season when it hit triple digits in rushing as a team (10-1), but was suspect when it couldn't hit that mark (1-4). Even games that started off as more air-oriented eventually came back to the ground game for the Buccaneers when the team was grinding it out in the second half. As much as the week leading up to the game has been about what will happen in the airways, particularly with the Rams on the field, the Buccaneer running game could become the focus on Sunday. That has Alstott and the Bucs' excited, even if they have been unnoticed.

"We're hyped, but we're staying really focused and keeping our poise," said Alstott. "This is exciting. We're playing for everything right now, but I don't think we're getting too hyped. We're staying within ourselves."

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