Defense Regains Swagger
Joe Henderson, The Tampa Tribune, published 25 November 2003

A collective groan rose from the crowd of 65,648 at Ray-Jay midway through the second quarter Monday night. Giants quarterback Kerry Collins had just passed to a way-too-open Amani Toomer in the end zone, giving New York a touchdown to pull even with ... Wait a sec. KER-SPLAT!

Dwight Smith flew into the picture, seemingly coming from Section 131 - his forearms aimed at Toomer's chin. The collision was so jarring, it took us all the way back to last year, when the Bucs used to do that kind of stuff all the time. The ball went flying out of Toomer's hands. His helmet flew off his head. ``We needed a play right there,'' cornerback Ronde Barber said. ``It was an emotional boost.''

On a night when much of the talk before Tampa Bay's 19-13 victory was about a player who is no longer with the Bucs, the night turned on the play of someone who has never left. Smith put the swagger back in a defense that had lost its way. New York's only touchdown came on an interception return. OK ... so it was only against the Giants, who are truly awful. But you're going to quibble? The Bucs needed to kick someone. The Giants just happened to be next on the schedule.

You're looking for style points from a team that let a 21-point lead vamoose the last time it played on ``Monday Night Football?'' You care about who the opponent was when you think about those late collapses against New Orleans and Carolina? That 98-yard drive by Green Bay? Not this time. This time, the Giants got the ball at their 21 with 3:45 remaining , down by four. We've seen that act before this season, right? Except this time, John Lynch intercepted the first pass Collins threw. Later, when the Giants had a final chance, Warren Sapp all but ended things by sacking Collins at his 3. It was Sapp's second sack.

Just like old times. ``I don't know if we ever lost our swagger, but this really helped our confidence,'' Lynch said.

No one is fooled. Shutting down an inept offense like the Giants isn't the trigger for ticker tape, but the Bucs had to start somewhere if they hope to start a charge to have any shot at the playoffs. If that charge is going to happen, the defense will have to lead the way. That's what Smith was doing when he closed on Toomer. That's what he did later by picking off a pass in the end zone. ``Two huge plays to fire up our defense,'' Jon Gruden said.

Smith said he was just trying to make up for being slow. ``I saw him late,'' Smith said. ``I should have been there to pick the ball off, but I got there a little late and did something to get the ball out. I was really trying to shoot for the ball, but I wound up higher.''

The big hit might have caused Toomer to short-arm a pass that likely would have gone for a touchdown not long after Smith clocked him. Toomer didn't have anyone within 10 yards as he sprinted free down the middle, but he didn't appear to want any part of the ball as it bounced off his hands. ``I doubt it,'' Smith said, when asked about Toomer's muff. ``This is the NFL. I think he was probably thinking of the run after the catch.''

Except Toomer didn't catch it. Throughout their three-game losing streak, the Bucs have seemingly waited for bad things to happen. When they've had to make a stand, they couldn't do it. Where before teams couldn't even think of driving the length of the field, they lately were doing it with regularity. This time, the Bucs caused the damage. ``We came out on fire,'' Smith said. ``We were on a mission this week.''

Lynch and Smith had interceptions. The Bucs forced five fumbles and recovered two of them. They sacked Collins three times. When the Giants threatened, the Bucs pushed them back. When the Giants needed a long drive, they didn't get one. Just the way it used to be. The way it will have to be if the remainder of the season is to have any meaning.