Defense provides hope
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 17 September 2007

This is what impact looks like. It looks like Jermaine Phillips on the hunt. It looks like Deuce McAllister with room to run, and then it looks like Phillips stopping him so cold that McAllister might have to be treated for frostbite.

This is what power looks like. It looks like Cato June on the chase. It looks like McAllister rambling around right end and June slicing through an offensive line to knock him down short of the line of scrimmage.

This is what punishment looks like. It looks like Derrick Brooks taking his irritation out on Reggie Bush. It looks like Brooks hitting Bush so hard that the ball popped up into the air, and when a Saints tight end caught the ball, the force of Brooks' tackle knocked him down, too.

More than anything, this is what hope looks like. It looks like the Bucs defense, open for business once again.

If the margin of the Bucs' 31-14 victory over the Saints Sunday afternoon jarred you, well, it was the Tampa Bay defense that did the jarring. The Bucs were merciless against a talent-rich, production-poor Saints team. They played as if they were compiling a greatest hits video with one player trying to outpop the previous tackler. They rode like the sons of Attila, like the next generation of Huns trying to outpillage their ancestors. They reminded you of the past, and they gave you a reason to believe in the future.

That was how good the Bucs' defenders were. In a season that had looked so dark beforehand, they turned on the lights. They not only won on Sunday, they looked good enough to win on other Sundays to come.

Around here, we know defense. In Tampa Bay, there are many things we do not know. We can't tell you much about mountains, and we can't talk about blizzards, and to tell you the truth, offense remains a mystery. Ah, but we know defense. We have seen defense.

This was Barrett Ruud tackling everyone. This was Ronde Barber being held and pulled to the ground and still making the tackle. This was Greg White, pass-rusher from nowhere, showing he could sack a quarterback in the big time, too.

And, yeah, Sunday's was pretty darned impressive, even for an area that has seen John Lynch and Warren Sapp and Lee Roy Selmon make a few plays. When you remember those guys, it's easy to see a game like this as a blast from the past. Not so, Barber said. All the blasting was present tense. "The Bucs defense of old is long gone," Barber said. "You have to let that go, man. This is a new Bucs defense. We have to establish ourselves now."

This was a step in the right direction. The Bucs swarmed. They stung. They were as fast as a computer virus, as relentless as a bill collector and as nasty as an ex-spouse. Along the way, they also managed to warm an old guy's heart.

Monte Kiffin, the defensive coordinator, stood in a corner of the Bucs locker room positively squealing in glee over what he had seen. His voice, what was left of it, was so high-pitched that outside, dogs were probably howling. He talked about how a player is supposed to finish off a tackle, and he would clap his hands together loudly. Say this for Kiffin: A lot of players have left his huddle in recent years, but the standards never have.

"You have to run and hit," Kiffin said. "It's not flag football. It's not two-hand touch below the waist. Gosh darn it, otherwise, they wouldn't give you shoulder pads. They wouldn't give you a helmet. Let's tackle someone."

Against the Saints, the Bucs tackled everyone. Remember, New Orleans finished last season one game shy of the Super Bowl, and they were a trendy pick of the prognosticators to make it there this year. They are a talented bunch with Drew Brees and McAllister, with Bush and Marques Colston and Devery Henderson. Until their stats were prettied up by garbage time, the Bucs controlled them all.

For instance, things seemed particularly difficult for Brees, the runnerup in last year's league MVP voting. Most of the day, Brees looked like a man lost in a demolition derby. Until late in the third quarter, when the Bucs took a 28-0 lead, Brees had only 99 yards passing. "I think this is what we expect of ourselves," Barber said. "We talk about setting the standard. I think after we see the film, we'll judge this as our standard."

Just like that, a season looks better. If the Bucs defense can play like this, is a good year out of the question? Does a winning record look so remote? Is the division title really out of reach? That's what a few big hits do; they shake up everything. McAllister, for one thing. Perceptions, for another.