He seems to belong in an earlier football era, when bloodied and soiled fullbacks barreled straight over defensive lines, dragging players for extra yardage. At a time when the up-the-middle, power-running game is all but extinct in the NFL, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fullback Mike Alstott pays tribute each week to John Riggins, Larry Csonka and other bruising backs who made their living 3.8 yards at a time.

At 6 feet 1 and a staggering 262 pounds, Alstott looks bulky enough to play on the offensive line. But he's sufficiently chiseled to have posed for a muscle magazine. He's a formidable blocker, but also the Buccaneers' leading rusher this season.

As the primary weapon for a conservative, ball-control offense that averaged just 16.9 points during the regular season, Alstott's performance could play a large role in determining the outcome when the Buccaneers face the Washington Redskins in an NFC semifinal game here Saturday.

"He's a punishing runner and an imposing figure coming through the hole," Bucs center Tony Mayberry said. "Being that size, he can give as much of a blow as he takes. He really personifies and sets the tone for our offense."

Fifteen years ago, it was unusual for a NFL fullback to weigh more than 235 pounds. Now, with linebackers tipping the scales at 255 and defensive linemen at 310, Alstott is the poster boy for the modern fullback.

Not that the extra weight has slowed him. In four seasons, Alstott has emerged as one of the game's biggest double-threats, equally adept at bulling forward off the line--949 yards on 242 carries in '99--or catching the ball out of the backfield.

"I like being heavier," Alstott said. "You're going to the hole and meeting a 250-pound linebacker head-to-head. I'm blessed in that I can carry the weight and still be able to run the ball and block effectively. If you're only 230 pounds and you try to take on a 260-pounder, you're going to get killed out there."

Teammates marvel at his dedication to the weight room, but his training methods growing up in Joliet, Ill., are downright legendary. Alstott would mark off 100 yards in a cornfield, then push a station wagon back and forth. Other times, he would tie a pair of tires to a 15-foot length of rope and fasten it to his weight belt, then run 40-yard sprints across his backyard.

When he got to Purdue in 1992, his workout facilities improved--sort of. There, Alstott pushed his Jeep through a parking lot painted to look like a football field. Until his teammates realized what he was doing, they would wonder why he just didn't get the car fixed.

"It's awesome exercise," Alstott said. "If you're pushing a car, you have to get leverage to get it moving. It's just like when I get on the football field and have to get down low to get leverage to block for the running back. It's really the same motion."

Alstott's straight-forward running style and strong second efforts might have contributed to his status as one of the league's leading fumblers. Alstott led nonquarterbacks with five fumbles in 1998. This season he lost the ball five times during the first nine games, including three against Kansas City.

After the Kansas City game, Dungy made Alstott run a drill in practice called "the gantlet." Alstott had to maneuver through two lines of defenders, who would strike him with large pads in an attempt to dislodge the ball. Alstott fumbled just once during the last seven games, but his six lost fumbles were tops in the NFL.

"I had to do a better job handling the ball," Alstott said. "It's no secret how our offense operates. Teams are going to be taking their best shots and I have to be ready for it."

Alstott has become a fan favorite here. His No. 40 jersey is the team's top seller, and he has a Chicago-style pizza restaurant in St. Petersburg and a new line of cereal. Fans bring whistles and horns to Raymond James Stadium to cheer on "The A-Train," much like Redskins fans brought diesel horns to support Riggins at RFK Stadium.

"I loved his running style," Alstott said of Riggins. "He was a hard-nosed runner who worked hard. You look at his second efforts, dragging guys with him. I couldn't help but be inspired by that."