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Fall to avoid fumbles

Cadillac Williams answers to a nickname, but he wants no part of a label.

Don't call him a fumbler.

Williams committed a costly fumble and nearly was charged with another in Sunday's loss at Pittsburgh. The problem is not that Williams doesn't protect the football, but that the Bucs running back makes himself vulnerable while fighting for extra yardage.

"I don't think I'm a fumbler," Williams said. "It's just one of those things. It is what it is. I don't know if a couple of fumbles means that I'm a fumbler or not."

Most running backs go through rough patches during their careers in which they struggle with ball security. It happened to Mike Alstott. It happened to Michael Pittman.

They worked through it.

Giants running back Tiki Barber's bout with fumbling three years ago was especially high profile, prompting coach Tom Coughlin to change the way Barber holds the ball. For the past two seasons, Barber has been among the league's most reliable ballcarriers.

Officially, Williams has five career fumbles, three as a rookie and two this season. Four were recovered by opponents, including the Redskins during the Bucs' wild-card playoff loss last season.

Five miscues hardly make Williams a chronic fumbler, especially considering he has handled the ball 531 times since being selected fifth overall out of Auburn in the 2005 draft. But three more times this season the ball has popped out either when Williams was ruled down by contact or when a ruled fumble was overturned by replay.

Against the Steelers, linebacker Larry Foote appeared to strip Williams at the end of a 9-yard reception in the second quarter and Pittsburgh was awarded possession. Coach Jon Gruden successfully challenged the call on the field and the Bucs retained possession.

In the third quarter, linebacker James Farrior forced Williams to fumble and Foote recovered. Again Gruden challenged the ruling, but the call was upheld.

"On both of them I did feel like I had the ball secured," Williams said. "It wasn't like I was carrying it like a loaf of bread. I was fighting for extra yards and trying to make a play. The guy made a good play on the ball. But that's no excuse. When I'm carrying the ball I need to protect it better, and that's something I'm focusing on this week."

Gruden sees a common ingredient to the occasions when Williams is stripped.

"The fumbles that he has come when he is fighting for that extra yard," Gruden said. "I don't believe it is the initial contact. It is not the way he is carrying the ball.''

Running backs coach Art Valero said Williams must learn when to fight for extra yardage. Sometimes, the smart play is to go to the ground when a tackler has him wrapped up.

"It's hard when you don't tackle in practice,'' Valero said. "He just has to get to a point where he understands there's a time to get down and a time to keep fighting for yards. You need to have a mental clock in your head for down and distance: What do you need?"

Playing in cold weather makes it harder to hold onto the ball. The temperature in Pittsburgh at kickoff was 42 degrees, and it could be even colder when the Bucs play at Chicago and Cleveland in the coming weeks.

Gruden is confident Williams will adjust.

"He has handled the ball a lot since he has been here," Gruden said. "I don't consider him a fumbler.

"I think he understands the No. 1 thing a running back can't do is fumble."

Joanne Korth can be reached at korth@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8810.

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