Just Like Old Times, Bucs Defense Delivers
Joey Johnston, The Tampa Tribune, published 22 November 2004

For weeks now, people said it was premature to use the P-word. The Bucs hadn't played well enough. It was an unrealistic standard. But it all came to life Sunday. The crowd felt it. So did the San Francisco 49ers, usually with a thud. The P-word. Pride. Defensive pride.

Playoffs? Yes, it's definitely too early for that other P-word. But apparently, it's not too late for the Bucs to rely on their long-standing identity. Were it not for 83 yards on San Francisco's final desperate drive, the Bucs would have registered one of the franchise's all-time defensive beat-downs. Even so, the Bucs allowed just 197 total yards in a 35-3 blasting of the 49ers. ``When I walked into the locker room, the first thing I said was, `Those are the Bucs I know; those are the Bucs I remember,' '' said Chidi Ahanotu, who recently returned to Tampa Bay after spending 1993-2000 with the team.

Let's also state the obvious. The 49ers (1-9) are awful, maybe the NFL's worst team. But the Bucs (4-6) did what was necessary. They suffocated San Francisco's offense with teamwork and professionalism. The 49ers never had a chance. That's what you do against sinking teams. You step on them.

Once, that happened nearly every week. Against the Bucs defense, especially on their home field, making first downs was dogged work. Nobody trampled into Tampa Bay's end zone with regularity. It was a tradition, a swaggering style that became the franchise's trademark. And it can happen again.

All week long, Jon Gruden told defensive players there was something to uphold. He showed film of running plays being stuffed, quarterbacks getting sacked, turnovers being forced, ball carriers getting flattened. In position meetings, those concepts were re-emphasized with more film, more talk. ``The one key element I remember from the Super Bowl year, and the other games where we played great, was how much fun we had on the field,'' Bucs safety Dwight Smith said. ``We just feel like the heartbeat of this team is the defense. When the defense has fun, the whole team clicks.''

Tampa Bay's defense, ranked sixth in the NFL coming into Sunday's game, had great moments throughout this season. All too often, though, it was undone by a big play, a blown assignment, a missed tackle. ``Last week [against Atlanta], if we play smart, we win the game, simple as that,'' said Ahanotu, referring to a fourth-quarter 49-yard touchdown pass to Alge Crumpler that broke open the 24-14 game. ``We can't let those things happen. There was a time when those things hardly ever happened around here. There's a [defensive] tradition here, and it's something that needs to be honored. Any time you put on those skull and crossbones, you need to live up to that tradition.''

That mission was accomplished nicely Sunday. For the 23rd time in the nine-season tenure of defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, the Bucs surrendered less than 200 yards to an opponent. The Bucs are 21-2 in those games. This was defense, good to the last pop. Kiffin's favorite sequence occurred when thousands of satisfied fans already were on Dale Mabry Highway. The 49ers, clawing for a touchdown and pride of their own, got to the Tampa Bay 1-yard line on Tim Rattay's 14-yard pass to Maurice Hicks on fourth-and-1. Time out, 49ers, with 10 seconds remaining. ``We have a lot of heart,'' Ian Gold said. ``We did not want them to taste the end zone.''

Hicks surged up the middle, but was crumpled by Gold and Jeff Gooch. No gain. Time out, 49ers, with four seconds remaining. ``The defensive line got down low and penetrated,'' Kiffin said. ``I was mad when they hit the fourth- and-1, but it gave us a chance to work on goal-line. I loved it.''

Hicks again went up the middle. Gold was there again. No gain. Game over. Players poured off the Bucs sideline, like a game-winning touchdown had just been scored. Corey Ivy grabbed the game football and triumphantly tossed it into the stands. ``It was a game where it seemed like you had 10 sacks, but you didn't [the Bucs had five],'' Kiffin said. ``There were so many pressures. Rattay had to get rid of the ball quickly. We played the run really well. It was a complete effort.''

``It felt good,'' Brian Kelly said. ``It felt good to get on top of somebody like that.''

Really, it felt like old times. It's definitely the sensation Buc defenders want to experience more often. And maybe they will. After all, it's a tradition.