by Marty Strasen of TBO.com
Remember Al Smith, Jim Bagby and Ken Keltner? OK, this writer doesn't either, but perhaps you've at least heard of them in connection with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak. Smith and Bagby were the Cleveland Indians pitchers who combined to hold DiMaggio without a hit on July 17, 1941, ending the longest hitting streak in history. Keltner was the third baseman whose glove turned two hard- hit balls by DiMaggio into outs that day.
If you're a Bucs fan these days, watching your team play defense has to be a little bit like the thrills fans of the Yankee Clipper enjoyed 62 years ago, following his every at-bat on the radio or gathering a couple of bucks to get to the ballpark. Tampa Bay's string of 17 consecutive regular-season quarters without yielding a touchdown was not a record-setter of DiMaggio stature, but the way points are scored in modern-day pro football, it clearly belongs in the remarkable category.
The streak ended Sunday in Atlanta, but not before the Bucs' defense fired several hot shots down the third-base line. The official stat sheet says Atlanta backup quarterback Woody Dantzler played the role of Smith/Bagby, ducking his way into the end zone on a third-quarter option keeper after the regular offensive personnel could not budge the Bucs on two short-yardage tries. Unfortunately for the Bucs, it was one of their own - RB Thomas Jones - who played the part of Keltner, dooming the streak to failure with a fumble that the Falcons returned to the 2-yard line.
The fact it required trickery, with Dantzler coming in to play quarterback on a play normally confined to the college game, says all you need to know about Tampa Bay's defense. The fact that play almost failed, too, should serve warning to the Bucs' remaining 13 opponents that this defense could be even better than last year's No. 1-ranked, Super Bowl-winning unit. It's not that the Bucs are doing anything fancy in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's one-gap system. It's just that they're doing it better than they ever have, even with new starters Nate Webster, Dwight Smith and Ryan Nece in the lineup. ``Our defense is predicated on a one-gap system,'' defensive end Simeon Rice said. ``With everybody in their gaps and playing the run, we can make a team one-dimensional. If you take away a team's best asset, if they can't establish that they can run the ball, you turn it into a passing game and that's when the turnovers happen.''
That's precisely how Sunday's game took shape. The Falcons tried early and often to run Warrick Dunn at the Bucs, to no avail. Why they didn't give the more powerful T.J. Duckett a chance is anyone's guess, especially considering the 142 yards Carolina's Stephen Davis gained against the Bucs a week earlier. Not that it would have mattered. The Bucs were on top of their defensive game today. Heck, they had such firm control of this game that Warren Sapp found time to catch a touchdown pass - something no Bucs opponent has done in a regular-season game since last December.
When it was clear the Falcons would not move the ball on the ground, they tried the air. The result: Four Bucs interceptions, including two by Smith. Though Tampa Bay's 17-quarter streak ended, two longer ones were extended. The Bucs have parlayed a takeaway and a sack in 44 consecutive games, the longest such string in the NFL in 40 years. And Tampa Bay's run of 63 straight games - nearly four full seasons - with at least one sack is the longest active streak in the league.
DiMaggio, the day after his 56- game streak ended, smacked a single and a double off the great Bob Feller. It was the start of a 16-game hitting streak on the heels of history. The Bucs have the look of a team that's ready to keep counting.