In the mud and blood .....
The mud and the blood had been washed away, the athletic tape shed like snakeskin on the locker room floor.
Nose tackle Chris Hovan grimaced and then grinned as he recounted how he and the rest of the Bucs defense swarmed to the football during Sunday's 24-3 win over the Rams.
"Ah, it's the best. I can't believe they pay me for that," Hovan said. "I love these types of games. It was raining. There was blood. Just running to the ball. These are the types of games I like. That's Buc defense. That's the standard that's been set around here. Not just one guy to the ball, two, three, four, five - maybe 11 guys."
It took that many at times to bring down Steven Jackson, the 6-foot-2, 231-pound wrecking ball who rushed 30 times for 115 yards.
The game plan for the Rams was to keep the football in Jackson's hands. But at some point, they had to throw it, and quarterback Marc Bulger was intercepted three times. Two, by Jermaine Phillips and Phillip Buchanon, came in Bucs territory,
Seldom-used Earnest Graham, a.k.a. Mr. August because most of his carries came during the preseason, entered in the fourth quarter and ripped off touchdown runs of 8 and 28 yards. The former Florida star finished with a career-best 75 yards on eight carries, including his first scores.
"We just kept battling, and a lot of that positive energy came from the way the defense was playing," said quarterback Jeff Garcia, his lip scabbed and swollen from a first-quarter hit. You respond off of each other. This game is an emotional, intense and exciting game. When our defense is playing the way that they are, we feel like it's important for us to pick up the slack on the offensive side of the ball. Finally, we got that going. We gave them a little rest in the fourth quarter and put this game away."
The victory improved the Bucs to 2-1 overall and kept them tied for first place in the NFC South with Carolina heading into next week's game against the Panthersin Charlotte, N.C. Meanwhile, the once-explosive Rams fell to 0-3.
"It's probably a little bit of everything," Bulger said of his team, which has scored 32 points in the losses. "Our game plan was to run the ball. If they would've brought nine guys to the line, we were going to try to run the ball. They didn't. They did occasionally, but they stayed in (Tampa 2), especially in the second half when they got the 10-point lead. They were going to say, 'You guys are going to make a mistake.' And lo and behold, I made some mistakes."
The Rams dominated time of possession in the first half. The Bucs ran just 15 offensive plays until a late drive resulted in Matt Bryant's 27-yard field goal in a torrential downpour made it 3-0. St. Louis' Jeff Wilkins missed field goals of 42 and 43 yards, the first after a 16-play, 65-yard march.
Phillips, who temporarily knocked receiver Isaac Bruce out of the game in the first half with a bone-jarring hit, intercepted Bulger at the Tampa Bay 34 early in the second quarter, the first in 179 passes by the Rams quarterback. And the 5-foot-11 Buchanon intercepted a fade pass to the 6-foot-5 Drew Bennett in the third quarter.
"I think I just forced it a little bit, on that play to Drew in particular, just trying to make something happen," said Bulger, who went 17-of-26 for 116 yards.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud (or 'Rooooood' as the chant at Raymond James went Sunday) led the Bucs with 11 tackles and his first career interception. End Kevin Carter chipped in with seven tackles and combined with rookie Greg Peterson on the Bucs' only sack.
"People that have watched, even casual fans, like little, old ladies from back home, have told me, 'Wow, you guys were flying to the ball,'" Ruud said. "And they don't know what they're talking about, but they can see that. That's fun to see. When people get excited about defense, that's cool."
Ruud and several of his teammates said they were surprised the Rams offense, once nicknamed "The Greatest Show on Turf" for its dynamic passing game, was content to become Jackson Plowing the Earth and didn't attack downfield. "Because that's kind of what their passing game is known for," Ruud said.
Cornerback Ronde Barber had nothing but good things to say about Jackson, arguably one of the toughest backs in the league.
"Not only is he big and he's fast, but the guy has got better change of direction than most little backs in the league," Barber said. "He's a great player.He's always pushing piles forward. He's tough to deal with. But put enough hats on him, he'll stop. That's what we did."
In the mud and the blood and the cheer.
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times, 24 September 2007