Bucs Create A Defensive Masterpiece
After a while, it finally began to come clear Sunday evening that in an odd sort of way the Carolina Panthers and the Buccaneers really needed each other. Not in a friendly way, of course, because the three-plus hours they spent together at Raymond James Stadium never will be confused as special time, certainly not when opposing kickers have to be kept apart when the day was over. No, they needed each other like Home Depot needs Lowe's or Budweiser looks for Miller. Sunday evening the Bucs and Panthers took a game that if played between anyone else would have been an ugly street fight and turned it into a piece of art.

Defensive expressionism. It's not every day you can see such a remarkably dull game produce so much excitement. ``Oh, yeah. I think people understand that in Tampa,'' Bucs safety John Lynch said. ``In a lot of stadiums, people leave their seats and go get a Coke when the defense is on the field. I don't think that happens here. I think that's when it gets loudest. And we like that.''

The Bucs and the Panthers are two of only three teams ranked in the NFL's top 10 in all three defensive categories. The Bucs arrived No. 1 in both total defense and passing and eighth in rushing yards allowed. Carolina was third in total yardage, fourth in passing and seventh in rushing. Even more noteworthy, the Bucs lead the NFL in fewest points allowed while the Panthers arrived No. 2. So, even if Carolina's offense is anything but ferocious, there was good reason for home-team concern when it was 10-10 midway through the third quarter, and, if at that moment there was such a thing as momentum, it was nudging toward the Panthers' sideline. ``The game was within reach at that point,'' Carolina coach John Fox said.

Then it was gone faster than a Democratic hopeful. ``You got to take care of what's on your plate,'' Warren Sapp said. ``We knew New Orleans lost, Green Bay lost. And we had a chance to take over the whole NFC lead a week from now, but that wasn't our focus. We were in a 10-10 ballgame. We had to take over this one right now. Let's put our focus on this play right now. Let's go to work. And we got them.''

We should have known it all along. The Bucs had the Panthers right where they wanted them: On offense. The following four Carolina possessions ended with three turnovers and a three-and-out. First, Simeon Rice slapped the ball loose from Carolina quarterback Rodney Peete and Sapp recovered. Then Dwight Smith intercepted Peete at the 19, setting up a 22-yard touchdown pass from Brad Johnson to Keenan McCardell. Three Carolina plays and a punt were immediately followed by a Lynch interception that set up a 41-yard Martin Gramatica field goal. Once again, the defense had put its stamp on this 23-10 victory. ``We're playing at a very prolific level,'' said Rice, who recorded two sacks. ``With that in mind, we have some phenomenal guys. The players we've got, they bring glamour to defense. If you are a fan, you got to say `Wow!' ''

Possibly even a little more. Carolina managed 231 yards of total offense, with only 93 in the second half. The Bucs defense finished with four turnovers - three of them in the second half. There was almost another one. In the final minutes, Ronde Barber picked up a fumble near midfield and carried it into the end zone, only to have the ball returned to Carolina when officials, after a replay review, judged that a Panther had touched the ball while out of bounds.

Bucs fans may not have liked the call, but they did seem to enjoy reading Coach Jon Gruden's lips as his reaction to the ruling was shown on the end zone's giant television screen. ``Coach Gruden kept challenging us about playing our best ball,'' Lynch said. ``I don't know if we did that. We did do some nice things. We're going to look at the film and feel we can play a lot better, but the one thing we did was get that crowd going.''

It knows excitement.

Mick Elliott The Tampa Tribune November 2002