Defense enjoys case of the bends
So much for the idea that NFL players turn up the intensity a notch at the dawn of the regular season. Tampa Bay's new defensive coordinator, Rusty Tillman, would be hard-pressed to prove that his defense wasn't in preseason form in Sunday's 21-6 victory over Philadelphia. Unless, of course, Tillman wouldn't have it any other way.

"I'm very happy," said Tillman, after watching his unit throttle the Eagles offense after two first-quarter field-goal drives, playing much the same as it did in preseason when the Bucs held three of four opponents to single digits. Winning is what it's all about. These guys had something to prove to themselves, to the city, and everything else. I think they did that. They made the plays when they had to, and that's what it's all about."

Plays? Try five sacks by five different players, a figure that represented one-fourth of Tampa Bay's NFL-worst 1994 sack total (20). Other highlights included a fumble recovery by safety Kenny Gant, an interception by left outside linebacker Lonnie Marts, and a game-high 10 tackles and a forced fumble by cornerback Tony Stargell, who was playing due because of a knee sprain to starter Martin Mayhew.

"The kind of thing that has always gotten us in the past didn't happen today," said Stargell, who entered the game with 9:36 remaining in the first quarter. "We've played some good defense, but we'd always have a breakdown that cost us. Now, by us being together for two years and knowing how to read each other during the course of a game, we're stronger."

Rarely has the cliche of bend-but-don't-break defense fit so aptly as it did Sunday. Tampa Bay gave ground to the Eagles, who finished with advantages in time of possession (34:31 to 25:29), first downs (20-15), rushing (111-83) and total plays (68-49), but rarely points. After two drives each in the first quarter, the Eagles had run a combined 22 plays for 111 yards and used 11:49 compared to Tampa Bay's five plays, 69 yards, and 2:36. Oh, and Tampa Bay led 7-6, getting a 64-yard Dilfer to Horace Copeland bomb.

"They drove the ball," Bucs linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "They possessed the football on us, but you've got to score touchdowns to win a football game, and we were able to hold them out of the end zone. They had us on our heels a little bit. We were trying to settle down and get the first-game jitters out and they're running the ball up and down the field on us. But we were able to respond. It's a great day."

Nobody had a better day than Stargell. Or a stranger week. Waived on Tuesday, because the Bucs and he couldn't agree on a restructured contract, Stargell re-signed on Thursday, and wound up playing nearly a full game after Mayhew went down with a sprained right knee. "It was weird week, but it worked out real well, though," Stargell said. "I was almost gone to Seattle on Thursday, and I wind up playing all day today."

"He did really well," said Mayhew, who expects to be able to return to practice late this week. "It's a good thing we had Tony. If we didn't have him, who knows? Then we would have had (rookie cornerback) Clifton Abraham, and you never know."

Don Banks, The St.Petersburg Times 1995