Bucs Raise The Bar
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 7 October 2002

The Bucs' defense sets the bar pretty high to begin with. Ever since Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks and John Lynch came aboard, it always has. And in the three games they played before facing the Falcons at the Georgia Dome on Sunday, the Bucs thought their defensive effort finally had reached those lofty standards. That's why Brooks was a little stunned to hear Coach Jon Gruden raise the bar on the defense again during their team meeting Saturday night. ``He told us to go out and unleash something on this league that it's never seen before,'' Brooks said after Sunday's 20-6 victory against Atlanta. ``I thought we'd done that already.''

They had. In their previous three games, Bucs defenders had given up an average of just 233 yards and 4.7 points per game while scoring a touchdown per game themselves. Against the Falcons, the Bucs kept that run alive. The defense kept a road opponent out of the end zone for the third consecutive game and scored a touchdown for the fourth straight game. Atlanta, with dangerous quarterback Michael Vick and able runners like T.J. Duckett and Warrick Dunn, never had a play over 20 yards and finished with 243 net yards. Gruden's challenge was met. ``There's nothing wrong with shooting for the moon,'' Warren Sapp said when asked of Gruden's prodding. ``If you miss, you wind up deep in the stars. That's where we are. We're on it right now.''

There's no denying that. In their last four games, the Bucs have allowed a total of just 27 points. That's the stingiest four-game stretch in team history, and during that span the defense has outscored opposing offenses 30-20. Brooks has done most of the scoring. He has a team-leading three touchdowns, including one Sunday, when he took a lateral from Sapp and ran in from the Falcons 15 after Sapp had intercepted Doug Johnson. ``I heard Brooks calling to me from behind and just pitched it to him,'' Sapp said.

The only pitch that damaged the Falcons more was made by quarterback Brad Johnson. With the Bucs trailing 6-3 late in the third quarter, Johnson connected with Keyshawn Johnson on a 76-yard touchdown pass that gave the Bucs a lead they would never lose. It was the longest play from scrimmage this season for the Bucs and the longest ever for Keyshawn and highlighted another disturbing Bucs offensive performance.

Hassled by blitzes, Brad Johnson threw for 261 yards but committed two turnovers while completing 17 of 31 passes. The running game, meanwhile, continued to plod along, gaining just 74 yards while averaging 2.8 yards per carry. ``I'm not really sure what it is,'' center Jeff Christy said when asked about the offense's ongoing problems. ``It seems like we move the ball when we have to. It's like we play just well enough to win. We haven't really had a breakout game where we've dominated, but the flashes are there. We just have to work on the continuity.''

Continuity has not been a problem for the Bucs' defense. That unit has made a habit of spoiling good scoring opportunities for opponents in recent weeks, and Sunday was no different. During a first quarter in which a 47-yard kickoff return, a fumble recovery and a recovered onside kick allowed the Falcons to start drives at their own 47, the Tampa Bay 32, and their own 42, the Bucs allowed just three points. The Bucs shut down the Falcons during the second quarter, limiting them to 26 total yards and one first down. Then in the third, they knocked Vick out of the game with a right shoulder injury that came as a result of a Simeon Rice hit. ``Once he [Vick] was out of the game, it was lights out,'' said Sapp, who did a pretty good job of containing Vick before he went down.

The most feared player on the Falcons' offense, one who some believe will revolutionize the quarterback position because of his speed and arm strength, Vick completed just four of 12 passes for 37 yards, was sacked three times and gained just 1 yard rushing. ``It was a purpose of ours all week long to try and keep [Vick] in front of us,'' Sapp said. ``If we could do that, we knew it would really aid us in our attempt to win this game.''

The Bucs had even greater success stopping Dunn, their former teammate. He was held to 27 yards on 11 touches, and afterward said he'd seen the Bucs dominate like this before. Ronde Barber is not so sure. ``That run we had at the end of 1999 was pretty nice,'' Barber said. ``But I don't think you can compare it to the way we're playing now. The intensity level is higher than it's ever been. Guys are just so confident when they're out there now. I mean, we're not afraid at all to make plays.''

And it shows.