Night & Day
Roy Cummings, The Tampa Tribune, published 13 October 2003

As the smoke from the final gun drifted toward the clouds Sunday, Warren Sapp gave LaVar Arrington a hug at midfield, then sauntered toward the tunnel leading to the Bucs' locker room. As he approached the stands, Sapp pushed out his chest, pulled his uniform shirt taut and pointed to the big red 99 in the middle of it, making sure everyone in the end zone and one sideline could see. Yes, indeed, the swagger is back. Maybe for good. Though they limped into FedEx Field with a team so depleted by injuries three players dressed who didn't join its ranks until Wednesday, the Bucs still managed to walk out looking like the cocky Super Bowl champs they are.

Capping what many players said was the most devastating and distraction-filled week in recent memory, the Bucs scored 28 unanswered points in the final 27 minutes to post a seemingly improbable 35-13 victory against the Washington Redskins. It was a game in which some of the biggest stars were little-known players such as tight ends Todd Yoder and Will Heller, who combined for three touchdown catches, and cornerback Corey Ivy, who made seven tackles in his first career start. ``That's what [Coach] Jon [Gruden] talked about when he addressed the team on Saturday night,'' safety John Lynch said. ``He told us that some young guys are going to have to step up today, and that's what happened. But he also told us that some of the veterans are going to have to make some big plays, too. He said we needed guys like me and [Derrick] Brooks and Brad [Johnson] and Warren to do their part, and we got that, too.''

Sapp, who was challenged by Arrington during the buildup to this game, broke a 12-game regular-season sackless streak by tackling Redskins quarterbacks Patrick Ramsey and Rob Johnson once each behind the line of scrimmage. ``I'm off the schneid,'' Sapp said.

As impressive as he was, though, Sapp was overshadowed by Simeon Rice, who tied a team record with four sacks and forced a fumble that derailed the Redskins' first drive. Brooks, meanwhile, had a 44-yard interception return for a touchdown. Dwight Smith, the free safety who was forced to start at cornerback because of the glut of injuries, also had an interception. ``I think this team showed its resilience today,'' said Rice, who has eight sacks on the season. ``We knew our title and our character were on the line, so we wanted to step to the plate and show who we really are.''

Sunday, you needed a lineup card to identify the Bucs. Because of injuries, they began the game with three starters and three other key contributors watching from the sideline. That situation only got worse as the game progressed. Starting tight end Ken Dilger went down with a foot sprain early in the second quarter and starting right guard Jason Whittle had to leave the game temporarily in the third. Even some of the players who did make it through the game did so only on sheer will. Wide receiver Keyshawn Johnson, for instance, missed most of last week's workouts nursing a severe left thigh bruise. ``I was so limited out there today that it was ridiculous,'' Johnson said.

As limited as Johnson and the Bucs appeared to be, they gained 379 total yards while converting 60 percent of their third-down attempts. Several of those conversions came on third-and-long situations, including one on a third- and-15 from the Bucs' 15 midway through the third quarter. With Tampa Bay trailing 13-7, Brad Johnson converted by hitting Michael Pittman with an 18-yard pass play that seemingly turned the game around. After that, Johnson hit on passes of 21 and 27 yards to get the Bucs into scoring position. Johnson's 11-yard pass to Yoder on a third-and-two play gave the Bucs a 14-13 lead and started their rally.

After Smith's interception two plays into Washington's next series, the Bucs drove 91 yards in 12 plays, capped by Heller's 4-yard TD catch. Unlike last week, the Bucs iced the game with Keyshawn Johnson's touchdown reception and Brooks' interception return. Tampa Bay tied a franchise record with 21 fourth-quarter points. ``They kicked our tails,`` Redskins coach Steve Spurrier said. ``They're a better team than we are. That's all you can say. We played with them quite a while, until about the middle of the third quarter, and then they took over. ... They seemed to get stronger as the game went, and we didn't.``

Looking back, Gruden said the conversion on that third-and-15 play sparked his team. ``That big conversion shot life into our football team,'' he said. ``You don't know if it won you the game, but if you punt the ball back to Washington from that area of the field, they've got a six-point lead and a chance to go in for some decisive blows.''

The Redskins delivered what appeared to be several decisive blows early in the game. Picking on the Bucs' depleted secondary, they racked up 163 total yards and converted 73 percent of their third-down tries in the first half. Washington had only 10 points to show for it, though, and those came after roughing-the-passer and offside penalties kept Redskins drives alive. ``After the half, we said, `No more penalties. Let's make them earn what they get,' '' Sapp said. ``Once we did that, we were fine.''

There was more to the Bucs' defensive surge than improved discipline. They started getting more pressure on Ramsey in the second half and that allowed the secondary to settle into a comfort zone. ``We just pinned back our ears in the second half,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``But that's our game. We knew if we could just get back to playing our game, we'd be fine. That's really how we looked at things all week. We lapsed a little bit last week [during a 38-35 loss to Indianapolis], that's all. We played a bad fourth quarter. But the swagger, that never really left us. It was always there.''