Protect those body parts; the defense has returned
Okay, guys. Very funny. Now give it back. Come on. Fun is fun, and guys will be guys and all that. But nobody leaves this room until we find out which one of you wiseacres from the Bucs defense went home with Jamal Anderson's kidney.

Hey, the guy is going to need that. Today there are a dozen suspects. The defense spent most of Sunday afternoon choosing up parts of the Falcons' key players, like Hannibal Lecter throwing a dinner party. It was mean. It was vicious. It was carnivorous. And, for those of you who watch this team regularly, it was about time.

This is what was missing on all those rotten Sundays. The power and the passion, the sound and the fury, the snap and the snarl. This was the Bucs defense you used to know, reckless and relentless, dictating tempo, enforcing its will, inflicting pain in a 27-14 victory. From all appearances, the defense is back. Quarterbacks, start your tetanus shots.

With the Bucs, it never changes. All the talk is about the offense, but all the weight is on the defense. It has been that way since Tony Dungy came to town. The defense is the heart, the spirit of this team. And if the Bucs are to get back into the NFC race, it is the defense that will set the pace. "I think we're back," safety John Lynch said. "We're punishing people again. We're hitting the way we should. We have our confidence back."

For a month the defense had been missing in action. Oh, not totally. There were still highlight plays; sacks and stats told the world its ability was still there. It would dominate the little plays. But then would come the plays that counted, the ones that separated winning and losing, and the Bucs defenders would zone out, standing beside a door they could have sworn was shut, shaking their heads while you shook yours.

Time after time a game got away. The Jets. The Vikings. The Lions. Each time the defense was vulnerable in the final minutes. Fatigue, it was suggested. Frustration, others said. "It was disappointing," Dungy said. "We're not used to giving up 30-point games, to losing leads in the fourth quarter, to giving up long plays, and we did all of that for four weeks. It wasn't that we were playing poorly. We'd play well in spurts, for most of the game, but we weren't making the crucial plays. This is too talented a group to have that happen."

Now compare the past two weeks, when the Bucs first-teamers have given up one touchdown in each game to the Vikings and the Falcons. Say what you want about the way the offense sputters. It can beat one touchdown a week. Consider Sunday's game. For most of the first half, it seemed the team's quarterback position had been taken over again by Bad Shaun, the alter ego of Good, Poised, Precise Shaun, who shows up from time to time.

It didn't matter. The defense played like one of the Falcons' offensive players was holding the game checks. Four sacks. Four interceptions. One quarterback knockout. Not to say it was fierce, but this just in from Attila: Hey, guys. You got the job.

For a while there, this game looked like one of those highlight videos from NFL Films: Rapid Pit Bulls of the Trenches. Or better, one of those Animal Planet films: When Bad Lions Happen to Good Gazelles. What it sounded like was a series of car wrecks. Yes, I know what you are thinking. It is a brutal league, and this is a brutal defense, and it has done a bit of hitting before. But even on those standards, this was impressive.

It was Derrick Brooks slamming into Anderson so hard that Brooks' helmet popped off. It was Nate Webster slamming into Anderson. It was Warren Sapp landing on Danny Kanell so hard that when Kanell got up, you half expected to see a little cutout imprint of him in the turf, like when Wile E. Coyote leaves a room through a wall. It was Brooks slamming into Anderson again. It was Al Singleton slamming into Anderson (who must have found the afternoon rather, well, redundant). And yes, it was Steve White and Sapp knocking Chris Chandler to the turf and out of the game.

No, no one is celebrating that Chandler, who has been hurt often, was helped from the field again. But it was a clean, crisp play, the team's third sack in three plays. White slammed into Chandler, then Sapp hit him with a shoulder pad, and that was it. "He was gone," Sapp said. "I saw his eyes, and there wasn't a lot of movement. He was gone. You never like to see someone get hurt, but that's the chance you take when you drop back to pass against us."

If that sounds a little like swagger, well, welcome back. This is not a defense that has spent a lot of time exploring its sensitive self. It operates on attitude and ability, each equal parts. It hunts. It marauds. It feeds. "We were able to turn this into a physical game," Sapp said. "When we were in our slump, teams were running the ball against us. The last two weeks, we've shut down the run. When you do that, it just feeds it. It's a fire that burns, and we're pouring gas on it. Late in the game, you saw their receivers drop some balls they didn't want to take a hit."

So what happens now? The Bucs have the Packers next week, the Bears the week after. Then they have harder games against the Rams and Dolphins. What happens? It's up to the defense. Around here, it always has been.

Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 2000