The Bucs plan to play the running backs together more often.
Balancing the offense between the pinball quickness of Warrick Dunn and the powerball surges of Mike Alstott has always required a deft touch by the Bucs coaching staff.
But this season there will be more of a level playing field for the two backs. The offense is being tweaked so Dunn and Alstott will spend more time on the field together.
Last season, the pair combined for 1,872 yards operating primarily out of I-formation and one-back sets. However, there weren't many occasions when they played at the same time. This season, the backs will play together, lining up in different formations to give opponents more looks.
"Hopefully, it will allow us to give defenses more to think about," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said Tuesday. "We have the luxury of having two guys that can catch the ball out of the backfield and line up in different spots. They're not traditional I-formation tailbacks, so we feel like we can do some things moving them around and taking advantage of what they can do catching the ball.
"We've tried some things and it looks pretty good in practice."
Dunn may line up as a slot receiver, or Alstott may go in motion. Both are capable receivers. Dunn averaged 41 receptions in his first two seasons and Alstott had 65 receptions as a rookie in 1996.
Defenses that put eight or nine men in the box will have to spread the field when the backs move into a pass-catching positions.
"For us, it keeps our best athletes on the field," offensive coordinator Mike Shula said. "On early downs, on first and second, it helps give us a little bit more flexibility. Teams can't say with this personnel, the Bucs offense is only going to run these plays. It kind of broadens our spectrum."
Ideally, the approach should increase the touches each back gets. Dunn averaged about 18 carries/receptions a game, and Alstott about 14. But when Dunn went above his average the Bucs were 6-2, and when Alstott went above that average the team was 7-2.
"One thing we do know with those guys is we want to give them both enough chances to make some plays," Shula said. "If you walk out of a game and Warrick's only touched the ball eight times, that's usually not good for you. The same thing with Mike."
Shula said each week the game plan may be geared toward Dunn or Alstott depending on the defensive matchups. Dunn may be better suited to attack large defensive fronts with speed, Alstott is better equipped to challenge smaller fronts with strength.
The common theme with both backs is they need carries to develop a feel for the game. Alstott said it may not be the first or second carry that turns into a big gain, but the fourth or fifth attempt. Dunn concurred.
"I guess being a competitor, you always want to be on the field at all times," Dunn said. "Last year, there was times where we went one-back and I was off the field two series in a row. You just tend to get out of rhythm. If you can be on the field and get a feel for the game you tend to get into the rhythm.
"On this level, sometimes you have to get into a rhythm to get into the flow of things. I think it's going to be helpful."
Alstott also championed the change, and was quick to add there's no animosity between him and Dunn about sharing playing time.
"We're partners," Alstott said. "We're a team, we're a tandem. What he does helps me out, and what I do helps him out. There's two different looks. There's speed, nifty-type versus power.
"I don't get mad when he's in there getting the ball. It helps our team out. We want to be the best, and with the different features that we have, we can do that."
One feature missing this year is blocking fullback Lorenzo Neal. Although a host of newcomers in training camp are battling to fill Neal's spot, Shula said Neal's departure necessitates a slight adjustment.
Neal powered the Rhino backfield with Alstott running behind him, but the package is not a certainty with Neal in Tennessee after being released because of salary cap concerns. Alstott said he would miss Neal's blocking and personality.
"He's a terrific guy," Alstott said. "It's too bad with the salary cap and the business situation that they did that. But as far as his blocking skills for our team, they helped us out a lot in certain situations. As far as his enthusiasm, he helped the younger players in being a leader.
"That's a tough situation because Warrick and I became very close with Lo Neal and it's tough to see him go, but we understand you have to get paid, too."