- The Washington Times - Thursday, January 13, 2000

To upset host Tampa Bay in Saturday's second-round NFC playoff game, the Washington Redskins will have to control the Buccaneers' two-man running game.

Probably no other team offers a better and more contrasting pair of runners than Tampa Bay with powerful fullback Mike Alstott and shifty halfback Warrick Dunn. It's not exactly an ideal matchup for a Washington defense that has been run on by the likes of Autry Denson, Jonathan Linton and Fred Beasley.

"When you play Tampa, you expect a physical, intense game," Redskins defensive coordinator Mike Nolan said. "They don't back off. They're not like most teams who say, 'They're stopping us. Let's wing it.' They won't abandon the running game. They stick with it. They continue to grind it out, milk the clock and minimize the amount of time that the other team's offense is on the field. If it takes them 30 carries instead of 20 to get 100 yards, that's OK with them. They're playing to win. They're more patient than most teams. They're going to stick with what they do best."

The Bucs didn't have their best year on the ground, ranking 15th in the league (compared with fourth in 1998), but they were 30th in passing. Tampa Bay ran 55 more times than it passed. The only other playoff team to run more often than it passed was Buffalo, which did so only six times. And only the Bills (32:12) kept the ball longer than the Bucs (32:11).

Alstott averaged 3.9 yards and Dunn just 3.2 (compared with 4.8 by NFC rushing champion Stephen Davis of the Redskins), but Washington isn't exactly looking forward to dealing with either.

"It's a big challenge to face both those guys," Nolan said. "You've got to have a swarming-type mentality when it comes to Dunn and a real physical mentality when you're going to tackle Alstott."

Cornerback Darrell Green, who has tackled every great NFL runner from Tony Dorsett to Terrell Davis, put it another way: "Down south, they have one big police officer and one little guy. The little guy kicks you in the heels, and the big guy grabs you by the neck. Speed and power. I don't want to face either one of them."

When the Redskins played the Bucs on Dec. 19, 1998, Washington had nothing to play for and Tampa Bay was gunning for a playoff spot. The Redskins won 20-16. Washington's 28th-ranked run defense shut down Dunn (33 yards on 18 carries) but not Alstott (80 yards on 13 carries).

"We have to win the battle at the line of scrimmage," Redskins defensive tackle Dan Wilkinson said. "We have to dictate to them and make them do things they don't want to do. Without a doubt if we do that, we win.

"My biggest concern is their line and their blocking schemes, who's going to double-team us and when. Facing Alstott and Dunn instead of focusing on stopping one real good back doesn't matter to me. Only one of them can carry the ball at a time."

The Redskins might be getting the Bucs at a good time. Starting offensive left tackle Paul Gruber is out, and left guard Jorge Diaz is a backup because of leg injuries. The Bucs have averaged 98 rushing yards over their past eight games, 28 yards fewer than during the first eight.

"We hope we're able to run the ball against them," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "That's what we do. That's what our team is built on. Obviously, they know that. They did a pretty good job of stopping us last year. If you get behind Washington and you have to throw, they have excellent cover guys in the secondary and guys who can rush the passer. We don't want to get into that mode."

And although the Redskins ranked just 27th in run defense, they have improved since midseason despite being blistered for 250 yards by San Francisco three weeks ago. Washington surrendered an average of 135 rushing yards during the first nine games but 100 yards during the eight games (including last Saturday's first-round playoff victory over Detroit) since Anthony Cook replaced Kenard Lang at left end. The Redskins have held five of those eight recent foes to fewer than 89 rushing yards.

"It's not just me, but I know my job is stop the run," Cook said.

"We're just playing better run defense lately," Wilkinson said. "Guys are understanding better where they have to be and getting the job done. And Anthony Cook has been a great addition."

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