Score one for defense
All this time, the Bucs had everybody fooled. There was bottled lightning in Warrick Dunn. And thundering fullback Mike Alstott. Oh, be very scared of speed demon Jacquez Green. Watch out for the flypaper hands of Bert Emanuel. Fear the strong arm of Trent Dilfer. Yeah, right.

Laid end to end, all those players still would have a little trouble reaching the end zone. You want to know what turns out to be the Bucs' biggest scoring threat of the season? Their defense.

Tired of watching the offense not score in the first half, the defenders literally took matters into their own hands in Sunday's 20- 3 win over the Giants. The Bucs intercepted New York quarterback Danny Kanell three times - including one that Charles Mincy returned 22 yards for a touchdown 94 seconds into the game. Mincy's interception was the first defensive touchdown by the Bucs in 46 games. It also highlighted a defensive effort in which Tampa Bay smothered the Giants while holding them to 135 total yards, the third-fewest yards Tampa Bay has allowed.

The Bucs improved to 2-3 heading into their bye week. The hope is that the offense will reacquaint itself with the end zone by the time the Bucs host Carolina on Oct. 18. Though there might be a lot of broken ankles from fans jumping off the bandwagon, all that mattered to the Bucs was the win. Pretty. Ugly. Or pretty ugly. It didn't matter. "No, I really don't care, and I don't think we have guys in the locker room that care," coach Tony Dungy said. "The thing you have to do in this league is win, and if you win enough, you'll be in the playoffs. That's what we had to do. We've got to get back to that."

Dungy conveyed the urgency of Sunday's game last week when he told his team in no uncertain terms that it was a "must win." "He's never used those words together, so we went out there and got the job done," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "It didn't matter how we did it."

Not only did Mincy's interception return set the tone, it enabled the defense to outscore the offense in the first half this season (7- 6). Notorious for slow starts, the Bucs had produced just one field goal before halftime in four previous games. "It's mystifing me that we hadn't had (a defensive TD) yet, but they do tend to come in bunches, so hopefully this is the start of something," Dungy said.

The Bucs had not scored a defensive touchdown in the 38 games since Dungy was hired in '96. "We normally play zone early in the game to get a feel for what the other team is doing," Dungy said. "We jumped into a man-to-man. (Mincy) had (Tiki) Barber, and the throw was a little bit behind him. It was good to see us get it in there. That actually gave us the cushion in the first half. We had talked about it. There's a lot of ways to score, and when you're not scoring points, other people have to pick up the slack. We kind of challenged our defense this week knowing we were playing against a very good defense. We had to pick our game up a little bit, and I think we did."

Kanell narrowly beat the Bucs' Trent Dilfer in an ugly quarterbacking contest. The former Florida State star went 10-for-27 for 83 yards and was intercepted three times. The Bucs' other two interceptions led directly to points. With the Giants driving at the Tampa Bay 21, defensive end Regan Upshaw dropped into coverage on a zone blitz and intercepted a pass intended for Chris Calloway, returning it 26 yards to midfield. That led to Michael Husted's 35-yard field goal and a 10-0 first- quarter lead.

The Bucs defense put the game away when Ronde Barber intercepted Kanell with about four minutes left and returned it 11 yards to the Giants' 30. Two plays later, Alstott, who led the Bucs' grind-it-out offense with 86 yards on 17 carries, broke loose for a 28-yard run. His 1-yard touchdown run with 1:54 remaining sent the crowd of 64,989 home happy.

Had if not been for Tampa Bay's offense, the Giants might have been shut out. But clinging to a 10-0 lead in the fourth quarter, a blind-side sack by blitzing cornerback Carlton Gray resulted in a Dilfer fumble that was recovered at the Bucs' 10-yard line by Chad Bratzke. But the Bucs allowed only a 22-yard field goal by Brad Daluiso.

Make no mistake, the Bucs have a lot of problems to fix on offense. Their passing game is in shambles. Dilfer did little to convince his detractors. He went 12-for-20 for 85 yards and was intercepted. He was sacked four times, fumbled three times and lost one. The Bucs also have been inconsistent running the ball. But they were persistent in re-establishing their identity as a rushing team and finished with 171 yards on the ground. The running game enabled the Bucs to hold the ball for 22:02 of the second half, mostly because of a 13-play, 61-yard drive in the fourth quarter that resulted in Husted's 26-yard field goal.

"Whether we say it or don't say it, they know we're going to run," Alstott said. "That's what we're all about. The defense won the game for us. When you can hold an offense like theirs to 135 yards and keep us in great field position like they did, nothing can go wrong. Good for us, we scored some points. But they came up with the big interception for a touchdown in the first quarter."

Dungy told his team precisely what kind of game it were in for, and his prediction came true. The Bucs thought they had an advantage on defense, and they were going to pound the ball on the ground until the Giants were worn down. "The game didn't turn out much different than we talked about during the week," said Bucs safety John Lynch, who led the team with 13 tackles. "Tony said we're going to stick with the run, we're going to pound it. Eventually, I don't know when it will be, but we'll start busting them."

The victory was Tampa Bay's eighth straight at home against non- division teams. The Bucs play three of their next four games at Raymond James Stadium beginning Oct. 18 against winless Carolina. "It's huge," Dilfer said. "I've been 1-4 a couple of times, and it's not fun. Two and three, you still have some hope. You can win a couple and have a winning record, and maybe some teams will come back to you."

Dungy agreed. "If we're 1-4, everybody's writing for two weeks what's wrong with the team and we've got to answer all those questions. Now we've just got to get on a winning streak," he said. "(Orlando Magic coach) Chuck Daly used to say you can never get on a streak until you win the first one."

Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998