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Alstott: No pain is no gain

He woke up the day after the game and immediately knew something was terribly wrong.

It was a sensation he wasn't used to. When you are a bruising fullback like Mike Alstott, the collisions leave an imprint. But on this morning, he felt nothing.

That's when the Bucs' workhorse began to believe it was his inactivity that's hurting the team.

"It was weird for me," Alstott said. "I was just bummed. I'm not even sore. I'm used to being banged up a little bit on Monday and feeling like I played."

One play from the Bucs' 10-6 loss to the Vikings Sunday illustrates Alstott's frustration, and that of the entire offense.

Trailing 3-0 in the third quarter, the Bucs had third and 1 at their 30-yard line. It was the ideal situation for Alstott, who is an NFC-best 4-for-4 on third-down rushing attempts. At the time, the Bucs were hunting for just their fourth first down. All that was left to do was let Alstott carry the mail.

Instead, quarterback Trent Dilfer dropped back to pass and was sacked by the Vikings' Fernando Smith. It was a critical exchange. David Palmer returned the ensuing punt 57 yards to set up Minnesota's only touchdown.

"It makes me wonder if they've lost confidence in me," Alstott said, "if they think I haven't produced enough. I just want to get back to what we were doing because I know it can work again. I know people key on us. But between Warrick (Dunn) and I, we're going to bust them. We're going to hit people in the mouth and wear them down."

Alstott finished with just 8 yards on six carries _ his fewest in 10 games. Bucs coach Tony Dungy admitted Alstott's number should have been called in the short-yardage situation.

"That was a miscommunication," Dungy said. "We should've run the ball. We had a check-with-me. If they're in one defense, we're going to throw. If they're in one defense, we're going to run. That particular one was the quarterback's fault."

There are several reasons why Alstott and tailback Warrick Dunn have fallen off the radar screen. Chief among them is the Bucs have had trouble handling the eight- and nine-man fronts used by opponents to stuff the run.

The Bucs averaged 147 yards rushing in their first four games. Since then they have managed just 98.8. That includes a 217-yard rushing effort versus Green Bay.

Alstott is second of the club in rushing with 358 yards. But in his last two games he has gained just 40.

A year ago, he set a club rookie record by leading the Bucs with 65 receptions. This season he has just 15.

The reason: Teams have decided not to allow the Bucs to throw to their running backs, and routinely assign a linebacker to shadow Alstott and Dunn should one of them circle out of the backfield.

Alstott also is no longer used in third-down passing situations the way he was last season.

"They're taking it away and basically isolating one back on me," Alstott said. "Wherever I go, they go. It's been hard. But there's other situations where we can. We've got a lot of receivers this year compared to last year. I don't think they have to rely on me as much catching passes."

For Alstott, who was an alternate to the NFC Pro Bowl team as a rookie and got off to a fabulous start this season, it has been a humbling month. No matter how many tacklers stood in his way, he would bulldoze through them the way he did on his highlight reel TD run at Minnesota earlier this year.

Four weeks ago, Alstott appeared to be a lock for the Pro Bowl. But as his productivity has fallen, he's given ground to New York Giants fullback Charles Way, who trails Allstott by just 28 yards rushing on 24 fewer attempts.

"It's not me. It's very frustrating," Alstott said. "I was having a ball the first five games. Just the fact that we were winning, but also, I was getting to play my game and everybody else was playing their game on the offensive side.

"It just feels that we haven't been utilized _ as far as Warrick and I _ we hasn't been our game as far as running the ball to help our teammates. It feels like we've been kind of cheating everyone."

Alstott points to the Bucs loss at Green Bay as proof the team can still run against eight-man fronts. Despite trailing 21-3, the Bucs never abandoned the run and finished with 217 yards on the ground.

"I think we should be a physical offense," Alstott said. "Whatever they put up there, we should pound them. If we get one or two yards, we come back and do it. Eventually, we're going to wear them down.

"We've just got to stick to the things that worked the first five games and not panic _ not worry about what they're doing. Let's keep our confidence and realize who we have on this team and strive for what we believe in."

Maybe then Alstott can start to hurt so good.

"I just feel like I didn't play a lot and I didn't contribute a lot," he said.

"I'm 100 percent. I'm fine. I'm surprised I feel this good at this time of the year. I just want to get back to the times we had the first five games of the season running the ball and being a powerhouse so I can feel beat up a little bit."