Prime Time Revival
This is how the Bucs fought their way back into playoff contention last year. And the year before that. They jumped on the back of their defense and special teams and rode them. They did it again Monday night, using five turnovers to grind out a 24-17 victory against the Rams. Now there's no telling how far they'll ride.
Once a seemingly lost cause, the playoffs are once again a possibility for the Bucs, who improved to 5-5 and are beginning to look like their old selves, especially when the other team has the ball. A defense that had allowed just 120 yards rushing in its previous two games brought its absentee pass rush to The Dome at America's Center on Monday. The result was three sacks, 10 early points off takeaways, and a pair of fourth-quarter game-saving interceptions that also may have saved a season.
But it's not just the defense that appears to be finding itself. Though it continued to struggle to run the ball outside the 30s, the Bucs moved the ball effectively inside that marker, getting TD runs of 7 and 8 yards from fullback Mike Alstott and another of 21 yards from Warrick Dunn. Brad Johnson, meanwhile, remained solid, making just one glaring error, that an off- target throw to Dave Moore that was picked off by Brian Young and returned to midfield late in the fourth quarter. That gave the Rams new life, and perhaps bring a premature end to their season. This time, however, it was the Bucs putting the Rams away, the result of a John Lynch interception with 2:26 to play that allowed the Bucs to run out the clock.
The interception was the second in as many defensive stands for the Bucs, who got their first from Donnie Abraham and thus brought to 11 the number of picks Rams quarterback Kurt Warner has thrown over the last four games. "We sure had our opportunities and the defense gave us a chance to get back in it at the end but we just couldn't do it," said Rams coach Mike Martz.
It wasn't just the secondary that shined for the Bucs defense, though. Led by Warren Sapp, who had two sacks, the Bucs front four finally displayed the form so many had expected of it this season. On a night when it also got fumble recoveries from Sapp and Marcus Jones and a batted down pass from Simeon Rice, the Bucs vaunted front created one problem after another for Warner and the Rams. Aided in large part by three fumbles, including one recovered by and another forced by Warren Sapp, the Bucs limited the Rams to just three field goals during the opening 30 minutes, marking the first time in 14 games that St. Louis has been held without a first-half TD.
As usual, capitalising on the opportunities their defense created was a problem for the Bucs' offense and special teams. The Bucs let three points slip away when a 25-yard field goal attempt by Martin Gramatica sailed wide right early on. It was Gramatica's first-ever miss under 30 yards. At least one other drive was thwarted because of dropped balls by the receivers.
The offense did manage to capitalise on two of the takeaways, however, scoring 10 points to take a 10-9 halftime lead that was due mostly to the revitalised play of the Bucs defensive line. Finally looking the menacing unit most football followers thought it would be, the Bucs forced Rams quarterback Kurt Warner into several bad throws, batted down a pass at the line and sacked him three times during the first half. Sapp had the latter of the three sacks, one which led to a fumble and three Bucs points in the second quarter. Sapp also recovered an Isaac Bruce fumble to stop the Rams second drive of the game and set up the Bucs first TD. The score came at the end of a 10-play, 54-yard drive that culminated when Mike Alstott ran in from 7 yards out to give the Bucs a 7-3 lead.
The Bucs mirrored that drive early in the second half, moving 68 yards in 11 plays and taking a 17-9 lead on an 8- yard run by Alstott that moved him past James Wilder and into first place on the Bucs' all- time touchdown list with 47 scores. In typical fashion, though, the Rams battled right back, making it 17-17 when Warner converted a fourth-and-one play by hitting receiver Brandon Manumaleuna in the end zone before getting a 2-yard run from Marshall Faulk on the two-point conversion. As resilient as ever, the Bucs regained the lead when Warrick Dunn finished off a 91- yard drive with a touchdown that made it 24-17. The Bucs then had a chance to pad that lead but they wasted that when Brad Johnson was intercepted by Brian Young inside the red zone.