|Bucs RB Mike Alstott sneaks the ball across the goal line for a first-quarter touchdown.(AP)|
"This was a good, hot day. They had been wearing down all day long," Bucs All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "Turn the 'Train' loose on them. Mike loves that type of environment because there ain't a lot of tackling going on. He can just bounce around, like a bowling ball."
The Bucs' defense extended its streak of consecutive games without allowing a touchdown to three. Sapp led the way, sacking Tim Couch twice and forcing the Cleveland quarterback to hurry numerous throws.
But as well as the defense played, the emergence of Alstott was just as important.
Tampa Bay has struggled to establish an identity on offense under Gruden, and fans have bemoaned the lighter workload Alstott has assumed while Gruden tries to get running back Michael Pittman on track.
Alstott carried two times for 5 yards in the first half Sunday, then made the most of his opportunities after Gruden sensed the Browns were wearing down in the 85-degree heat. He gained 83 of his yards in the fourth quarter.
"It was getting frustrating, I'm not going to lie. You just want to be a part of it," said Alstott, who finished with 126 yards on a season-high 17 attempts.
"I was part of it. I didn't feel like I was left out, but just the competitive nature of an athlete and just the success and history of being here, I just wanted a bigger part."
Tampa Bay (5-1) won its fifth straight to match the team's best-ever start after six games. The Bucs also began 5-1 in 1979 and 1997.
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 incident 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."
Alstott became the first Tampa Bay runner to gain 100 yards this season, taking over the game late in the third quarter when the Browns' defense began to show the effects of being on the field for long stretches.
He accounted for all the yardage on a five-play, 55-yard drive, which he finished with a 17-yard TD run on the first play of the fourth quarter.
"That's been their M.O.," Browns coach Butch Davis said. "They get a lead and they just grind you and pound you."
The Browns could blame poor tackling for a 64-yard pass play that set up Alstott's first touchdown.
Pittman caught a sideline throw from Brad Johnson, broke free from cornerback Daylon McCutcheon's grasp at the line of scrimmage and raced upfield. Safety Devin Bush caught up to him and fought off a stiff-arm before dragging Pittman down at the Browns 5.
Two plays later, Alstott scored from the 1, giving the Bucs a 7-0 first-quarter lead. Karl Williams' 43-yard punt return to the Cleveland 27 set up Martin Gramatica's 33-yard field goal for a 10-0 halftime lead.
The Bucs' defense hasn't given up a touchdown since the fourth quarter of a 26-14 victory over St. Louis on Sept. 23. The unit failed to score on its own for the first time in five games, but the offense didn't need the help, thanks to Alstott running at will in the second half.
Couch finished 20-of-40 for 151 yards. He was sacked twice and intercepted once.
Johnson was 15-of-32 for 194 yards and no interceptions for Tampa Bay.
- Bucs S John Lynch (right knee sprain) didn't practice until Friday, but started and played the entire game.
- The Browns had never lost to the Bucs before Sunday, winning all five previous meetings.
- Cleveland crossed midfield just three times, once on Dennis Northcutt's 30-yard punt return.
- Sapp lined up as a tight end for a goal-line play in the fourth quarter. Alstott ran to the opposite side, losing 5 yards.
The Associated Press News Service
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