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Offense turns to Pittman

Jon Gruden isn't happy, and he admitted as much Monday morning. But at least the Bucs coach can look forward to something.

Help is on the way.

Running back Michael Pittman has returned after a three-game suspension, during which time he worked out twice a day at Bradenton's IMG Academy. With running back Charlie Garnerlost for the season after tearing the patellar tendon in his right knee Sunday night against Oakland, the timing of Pittman's arrival couldn't be better.

"I've never been this hungry," Pittman said Monday.

The Bucs' anemic offense, averaging 71.3 yards rushing, needs a boost. Gruden had hoped to use Pittman and Garner together, but now Pittman, who rushed for a team-high 751 yards and caught a career-high 75 passes last season, figures to be the featured back.

"Obviously, he'll start at tailback, and we're anxious to get him going again," Gruden said. "Pittman's a guy who we think is a fine football player and we'll have to lean on him at this time."

Pittman was suspended for violating the NFL's personal conduct policy, based on a history of domestic disputes and anger problems. Under terms of the suspension, he completed training camp and played in preseason games.

"I'm very excited," Pittman said. "It's the worst feeling (not being able to play). When we lost those first two games by one play, a play here or there could have turned the whole game. It's tough to see your teammates struggle, when maybe you could have done something to help. They did the best they could, but maybe if I was there I might have added one or two plays that we needed."

Pittman said he doesn't anticipate it taking him long to be game-ready, but admitted, "It's hard to get into football shape. When you're out there just running by yourself, you're not getting hit."

His teammates, Pittman said, have provided support. Now, he wants to thank them.

"My first year I had an injury that frustrated me," he said. "The second year I had personal reasons that frustrated me. This year, I'm free from everything. Hopefully, I can help us get that first win."

DEJA VU: Gruden was asked _ again _ about the team's negotiation stalemate with receiver Keenan McCardell. His answer was a familiar one: "We have the same conversation every week," he said. "Keenan has said some things that have hurt my feelings. I feel very bad about this, I really do. We want him in here. We would love to have him in here playing for us, but there is a salary cap."

FEELING GARNER'S PAIN: Raiders defensive tackle Warren Sapp said seeing Garner lying on the field injured was difficult. "It's scary on any side of the ball," Sapp said after the game. "You hate to see a player go down like that, especially on the same field that you're on. I've always said that we're always six seconds away from flipping burgers at Steak 'n Shake."

TOTAL DOMINATION: The stats showed the Bucs had 389 yards, 10 less than the Raiders. But the game was a lot more lopsided, particularly on the line. Except for a few big plays in the fourth quarter, the Bucs offense struggled on the interior, and the defensive front wasn't much better. "That's the thing we want to do," Sapp said. "We've got to dominate the game. That's the game within the game. When you dominate the line of scrimmage, the sky is the limit."

THE RICE FACTOR: Apparently, one of Oakland's strategies was to double team defensive end Simeon Rice and run the ball to his side. The Raiders claimed they learned their lesson on Rice, who tormented them in the Super Bowl win two years ago. Rice had his first sack of the season, but it came late in the game when quarterback Kerry Collins was flushed wide and intentionally slid to the ground. "We're good there," Raiders coach Norv Turner said. "Everyone wants to rush the passer from that side of the line."


RICK STROUD, Times staff writers