Suffocating defense goes retro
Time was, this was the way it used to look. Back in the day, this was the way it used to feel. A flash comes up the middle, and you can see the befuddlement cloud the opposing quarterback's eyes. Warren Sapp, maybe? No, it was Jovan Haye.

A defensive end flashes around the corner with impossible speed, separating the quarterback from the football. Simeon Rice? No, it was Greg White. A safety closes fast to stop a running back cold in the open field after a short pass. John Lynch? No, it was Tanard Jackson.

The actors may be new, but for the Tampa Bay Bucs, the performance was something out of the past. This is the way the Bucs used to play defense, fast and fierce, reckless and relentless. And if the old guys were watching, they would be impressed, too.

The Bucs made a bad Falcons team look worse in Sunday afternoon's 31-7 victory. It was as if the Bucs placed the Atlanta offense in a shrinking box that offered no light, no air, no hope. When the game mattered, there weren't a lot of yards, either.

"It was something like back in the old days when we had Sapp and Rice and (Booger) McFarland and Greg Spires really humming," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "It's been a long time since it's felt like that. We didn't have any like that last year."

How long has it been since the Bucs made quarterbacks look this hopeless and running backs look this helpless? The 19-3 victory over Buffalo in '05? The 27-0 victory over Atlanta in '04? The 17-0 victory over Philadelphia in '03? A game such as this will make you think back. And also think forward.

As of now, you should think of the NFC South race as a game. The Bucs have a lead. From this moment on, it is up to the defense to make it hold up. "It's always on us," Ronde Barber said. "I love our offense, but around here, it's always been up to the defense. We know that."

After Sunday, perhaps a few more people will be aware of it. Only the Steelers have allowed fewer points than Tampa Bay this year. Every week, the Bucs seem better than they did the week before. Every week, they do a little more to make you forget about that mess that was last year's defense.

Forget the fourth quarter, when the Falcons gained a lot of trash yardage in a game that was out of reach. Over the first three quarters, the Falcons converted only one of their first 11 third downs. They had only 31 yards rushing. And as far away as they stayed from the end zone, it must have looked as if it was somewhere on Mars.

How good was the defense? It had four sacks. It had four turnovers. It scored a touchdown (Ronde Barber on a 41-yard fumble return). It stopped a fourth and 1 for no gain. (Barber again).

How good? The game was still in the second quarter when the crowd started to chant for Joey Harrington, and remember, this crowd has seen Harrington. That's how bad Byron Leftwich was. Leftwich finished with a final quarterback rating of 32.7 (out of a possible 158.3) and, at that, it felt as if he was being graded on the curve.

All in all, it was fairly awful. Especially when you consider that Barber said the entire Bucs defensive game plan was built around the notion that Harrington would be the Falcons starter. "Basically, we made them both look bad," Barber said.

True, but the domination went far beyond the quarterbacks. If you remember, the last time the Bucs played in the Georgia Dome, the Falcons rambled for 306 yards rushing. Sunday, they had 49.

"The last time we were up here, we were totally embarrassed," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "I started thinking about that last week. Watching the tape was embarrassing. The broken tackles. The plays when we didn't finish. I didn't want us to have that effort. The last two games we lost on the road, we lost because the other team was able to run on us."

This time, the Falcons couldn't run. They couldn't throw, either. And surprise, surprise, with that spread offense of theirs, they couldn't pass protect, either. True, part of the dominance was because of Atlanta's shortcomings on offense. On the other hand, the Bucs defense has been pretty good this year, and it seems to be getting better as the season goes along.

Barber can tell you stories of the old days, too. He will tell you about when he first arrived in Tampa Bay, and there were players like Sapp and Brooks and Lynch in the huddle. "When they bought into what we were doing, we took off," Barber said. "It's the same thing. You can see some of these players are starting to buy in."

Six games to go and a two-game lead. From here, the Bucs have their hands around the NFC South trophy. If another team wants it, it will have to go through this defense to get it.

Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times 19 November 2007