October 14, 2002 at 11:18 AM EST - Updated June 29 at 7:50 PM
By FRED GOODALL, AP Sports Writer
TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - The Tampa Bay Buccaneers insist they don't have a running back controversy, just two guys who can punish a defense and help the team win.
Mike Alstott and Michael Pittman demonstrated as much Sunday in a 17-3 victory over the Cleveland Browns, who couldn't stop either of them on a hot, muggy afternoon.
Alsott ran for 126 yards and two touchdowns. Pittman caught five passes for 95 yards and added 53 yards on the ground as the Bucs (5-1) won their fifth straight to match the team's best start after six games.
"There's no other way to win than we did," cornerback Ronde Barber said after the Bucs' defense extended its streak of consecutive quarters without allowing a touchdown to 12.
"It's a lot better than a shootout and putting up big numbers," added Barber, who had his first interception. "We controlled the whole game the way that we like to."
That means stout run defense and a relentless pass rush led by Warren Sapp, who sacked Tim Couch twice. And, it means moving the ball on the ground, particularly late in the game.
Alstott ran for 121 yards in the final 17 minutes, including 83 in the fourth quarter. The five-time Pro Bowl fullback has been frustrated by the diminished role he's assumed in coach Jon Gruden's offense, and hopes his workload will increase after delivering against the Browns.
"I'm not trying to be egotistic or anything. I think every athlete would say the same thing," Alstott said. "I just wait for my opportunities. I wasn't going to speak out or say anything. I wanted to play. ... Every time they called my number, I just wanted to make something happen."
The 248-pound fullback carried two times for 5 yards in the first half. With Gruden sensing the Browns defense was tiring in the 85-degree heat, the coach unleashed Alstott late in the third quarter.
During one stretch, Alstott carried on seven straight plays, gaining 73 yards. That included five attempts to account for all 55 yards on a drive he finished with a 17-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"When he has efforts like this, it's something. He put the whole team on his shoulders and was just running through their guys," Bucs safety John Lynch said. "It's fun to watch."
The loss ended a tumultuous week for Couch. He lashed out at Browns fans for cheering when he was knocked out of last Sunday night's loss to Baltimore, then received an outpouring of support from fans. But on Sunday he struggled, passing for just 73 yards in the first three quarters.
The Browns (2-4) avoided a shutout with Phil Dawson's 50-yard field goal with 11:45 remaining.
"I just wanted to come out and win," said Couch, adding that the episode with the fans wasn't on his mind. "Every week there's going to be a lot of eyes on every quarterback in this league to go out and prove themselves."
After Pittman's 64-yard gain on a reception set up Alstott's 1-yard, first-quarter TD run, the Browns defense did all it could to keep Cleveland in the game.
Couch was 20-of-40 for 151 yards and one interception. The Browns began the day with the NFL's 10th-ranked offense, but were held to 194 yards -- 157 below their average.
The Bucs, who also started 5-1 in 1979 and 1997, have allowed a league-low 56 points.
"I'm not ashamed, in the least, of the effort they gave. I wish we would have played a little more efficiently on offense," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "They line up and challenge because they've got six, seven, eight guys that have been to the Pro Bowl. They're going to make you bleed, pay the price and go the long, hard way."
Notes: Sapp has six sacks, matching his total from last year, when he played all season with a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder. ... The Bucs' defense hasn't allowed a TD since the fourth quarter on a 26-14 victory over St. Louis on Sept. 23. ... With backup QB Kelly Holcomb out with a broken leg, the Browns listed WR Frisman Jackson as the third quarterback.
(Copyright 2002 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)