For Bucs defenders such as Derrick Brooks, Simeon Rice and Brian Kelly, it has long been a way of life. The team leans on them, and they usually don't fall. They did it again Sunday. Against an opponent that was expected to kick-start a playoff run, they stood strong and tall and served notice yet again that they can carry a team. Guess what? They may not have to.
Maybe it was a fluke. Maybe the Bucs' 24-13 season-opening victory at Minnesota was nothing more than beginners' luck. For all anyone knows, Buffalo could come to Tampa next week and tear apart every good vibration the Bucs sent out Sunday. But at least for a week there were reasons to be encouraged -- lots of them on offense. From Alex Smith slipping behind the Vikings defense for two touchdowns to Cadillac Williams running through it for one long one.
From the running game producing more yards in this game (146) than it did in all but two games last year, to quarterback Brian Griese generally outplaying Vikings counterpart Daunte Culpepper. From Joey Galloway catching five passes for 97 yards to the kid-laden offensive line taking on a far more veteran unit and regularly winning the battle of the trenches. "Nobody wants to depend on anybody," said Griese, who completed 18 of 29 passes for 213 yards. "We're a team; we work together and we feed off each other. I mean, I was actually a little upset that we left our defense in some tough situations."
It didn't matter. The defense on Sunday had one of those days, the kind that makes one wonder if it didn't have someone stealing signals from the other side. The unit gave up just 26 yards rushing, forced five turnovers and threw such a dragnet around Culpepper that he failed to throw a touchdown pass for the first time in 21 games. "We just never really got into a rhythm," said Culpepper, who did complete 22 of 33 passes for 233 yards but was sacked twice and threw three interceptions. "And that's the thing that sticks out the most in my mind right now. Our offense is very rhythmic, but we just couldn't get into a rhythm Sunday. I have to give a lot of credit to Tampa's defense. They did a great job of keeping us from getting into a rhythm."
On the couple of occasions that the defense did allow Culpepper and the Vikings to move the ball and develop some energy, the Bucs eventually found a way to stop it. Case in point: Fourth quarter, 1:53 to play, Bucs ahead by four. Minnesota's ball, first-and-10 on the Tampa Bay 12 with the Bucs still reeling a bit from Brooks' failure to fall on a fumble two plays earlier. If ever the Bucs needed a play, this was it. So up stepped cornerback Kelly, who had already picked off one Culpepper pass while standing with his back to his own goal line, with an interception off a deflected pass. "The defense was phenomenal, and I'm not sure that word is good enough to describe them," center John Wade said. "They did everything -- three turnovers in the first half, the pass rush was great all day.
In the second half we left them on the field a little bit, but they came through. They won the game for us."
Well, almost. But three plays later, just to be sure -- and to possibly show the defense it didn't need to shoulder the entire burden -- Williams ran off left tackle for 71 yards and his touchdown. Until then, Williams had delivered a mixed bag of rushes for a total of 77 yards on 26 carries (2.8 average). The Bucs, though, knew Williams had that game-breaker in him. Their defenders had all seen him produce it in practice, and what they've seen has changed the way they look at games. "Hey, I'm not knocking anybody, but it is what it is," Kelly said of the Bucs' offensive efforts in previous seasons. "But now we've got a guy who's a weapon, and he's going to help us close out games."
"He's like Warrick Dunn on steroids," fellow cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We haven't had a guy that can take it 71 yards and run away from you after tripping like that since Warrick. And that's something I think a lot of guys are excited about. We didn't see a lot of him in the preseason, but that was for a reason. We knew what we had."
Now everyone else knows. As a result, the yards may become tougher and tougher for Williams to rack up. Sunday's effort, however, gave you the feeling that may not matter. At one point in the game the offense was in perfect balance. The Bucs had called 20 running plays and 20 passing plays. Perfect symmetry -- just what Gruden wants. "Look, if we're ever going to be a team that competes for a championship, we're not going to get there winning games 10-6 and 9-3," he said. "We're going to have to have some kind of offense, because there will be days when we need to score. But that doesn't mean we change the standard for the defense. We expect our defense to keep us in every game, and if we can get our act together on offense and make more splash plays like we did Sunday, we'll win our share."
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune 12 September 2005