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Seeking amends, back drops ball

He entered needing 124 yards on the ground to give the Bucs their first 1,000-yard rusher since the 2000 season.

He also needed a superb performance to remove the sting of a series of critical fumbles during the season.

But in a woeful 12-7 loss to the Cardinals, in front of the organization that drafted him, Michael Pittman accomplished neither.

In fact, Pittman added another blemish to his season when he gave up the ball at his 14 with eight minutes left and his team trailing 9-7.

For those counting, that's lost fumble No. 6.

"I was saying, "Not again, not again,' " Pittman said. "I felt like I had the ball secured, of course, but it seems like it's really been bad luck for me this year. If you look at my stats, you'll see that I never really fumbled the ball that much in previous seasons, and I have had guys working on it in practice and have had guys stripping the ball in practice.

"It's all on me to have the responsibility to hold onto the football, and I have to accept that responsibility."

In a season of bizarre happenings, Pittman's fumble seemed the appropriate ending. There were the two fumbles against the Rams on Oct. 18, the two against the Panthers on Nov. 28 and one two weeks ago against the Saints. All helped lead to a loss.

"I'm guilty of every one of them, and it's the same story all year long," Pittman said. "Coach (Jon Gruden) has stressed about the turnovers, and as a running back, that's my job, to protect the ball.

"You see guys trying to pull at the ball and slap at the ball. It's gotten to that point, and with good reason. I have been fumbling. Coach expects me to hold onto the ball, just like he expects Chris (Simms) to not throw interceptions. I have got to hold on to the ball, especially in critical situations like that."

The series of gaffes have spoiled a fairly productive season for Pittman. After serving a three-game suspension for violating the league's conduct policy, Pittman has carried the running game.

In 13 games, he has 1,317 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns. Running backs coach Art Valero said it would be unfair to look only at Pittman's fumbles.

"It's been a great year," Valero said. "I think Mike's whole running style is such a violent one that he jams it up in the hole so hard and so fast. Because he is violent, the ball has a tendency to get away from his body.

"The bad thing I feel for Michael and the football team was that each of those all came in crucial situations. Obviously, every down is a crucial situation. But they were magnified."

Guard Cosey Coleman admitted the fumbles have been costly but was quick to share blame.

"Any time it's a team sport, and we're in a team sport, we can't look at one play," Coleman said. "We're not going to let one play decide the game. At the end of the game, everybody has a play or two that they wish they could have back. We trust Mike, and he has come through for us a lot in the past. One play won't diminish everything, but it does embody the type of year we had.

"We have had Martin (Gramatica) missing field goals early on. Turnovers at the wrong time. Penalties. Defensive breakdowns with leads. We've had a multitude of things that have us in the situation we're in right now."

To his credit, Pittman stood at his locker and faced a barrage of questions about his ball security.

"I'm guilty of six of them this year in crucial situations," he said. "I'm going to be a man and stand here and take that. At the same time, I played hard through every game and I'm going to work hard in the offseason.

"It's over with. Of course, we wanted to be in the playoffs, but in some ways I'm kind of happy it's over given the kind of season I've had. I think performance-wise I did well, but ball security-wise I didn't do so well. I have to bounce back next year."

Michael Pittman had 1,317 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns this season, but he admits those numbers were tainted by his fumbles, all coming in Bucs losses.

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