It's a Dunn deal
Turns out the outspoken defensive lineman of the bickering Bucs might have been right all along. More or Les. Two days after Warren Sapp blamed offensive coordinator Les Steckel for the team's poor record this season, the Bucs offense responded by doing a 180. Well, 180 total yards, anyway.

But using a formula they borrowed from the 1999 division championship season, Tampa Bay defeated the Buffalo Bills 31-17 Sunday. The Bucs did it behind two touchdowns from Warrick Dunn, who rushed for a season-high 106 yards on 20 carries. They also got an electrifying 73-yard punt return for a score from Karl Williams. And Sapp's defense played harder than he talked.

Tampa Bay sacked Bills quarterback Rob Johnson six times. Sapp, who broke the team's season record (13) of Hall of Fame defensive end Lee Roy Selmon, had two. Linebacker Derrick Brooks had 20 tackles and safety John Lynch inspired his team by playing despite a dislocated left shoulder. Sapp's potentially divisive assault on Steckel, published Saturday, might have unified the Bucs. If there was an offensive coordinator who felt worse than Steckel it was the Bills' Joe Pendry, whose team outgained Tampa Bay 433 total yards to 180.

"I'd absorbed a lot from everybody on this ballclub for weeks and it was time to let the top off the bottle," Sapp said. "I'll say it 101 times. It was just time. I knew what the people in this locker room thought about what I said. That was the driving point. It was for the people in this room who go out and play and perform. We did what we needed to do today."

The Bucs (7-5) snapped the Bills' (7-5) four-game winning streak. Steckel and Sapp talked briefly before the game about the verbal grenade that the NFL Defensive Player of the Year lobbed at the retired Marine. Steckel said after the game that he was not offended by harsh criticism from Sapp, who said the Bucs offense lacked identity and had fewer base plays than "a high school team." "I've got to tell you, I really wasn't. I'm sure it was just based on frustration," Steckel said. "I don't have any ill feelings about it at all. I really don't. You've got to know me. I didn't even read the article."

Perhaps, but Tony Dungy and most of Sapp's teammates did. Dungy addressed the matter with Sapp personally Saturday morning and with his team later that night. "I wasn't concerned about the impact it was going to have because I know the type of team we have," Dungy said. "It's something we don't want to see. We want to handle matters in-house and we don't like to take them outside. But I thought our team would come out and play well, and they did."

But it was another long day for quarterback Shaun King. One week after throwing for a career-low 91 yards and two interceptions in a 13-10 loss at Chicago, King completed 10 of 18 for 106 yards and was sacked seven times - 2.5 by linebacker Sam Cowart. Fortunately for the Bucs, Cowart (ankle sprain), linebacker Sam Rogers (groin strain) and safety Keion Carpenter (ankle) left with injuries. King, who played with a lower-back strain from the second quarter on, ran for a touchdown and directed a 70-yard scoring drive in the fourth quarter to put the game away.

"As I've always said, you can put 31 points up a lot of ways and we had a lot of people contributing to that today," Dungy said. "That's the thing I think we have to learn. It's not about statistics or yards or what's going on. It's winning the ballgame. And I think our team felt pretty good about being in that type of game."

Dunn, playing without injured fullback Mike Alstott, capitalized on the extra carries to become the first Buc to reach the century rushing mark this season. He also is the first player to rush for 100 yards this year against the Bills defense. "If we can get 180 yards and win the football game, then give me 180 yards total offense for 16 weeks and I'm fine with it," said receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who caught two passes for 15 yards.

Make no mistake, Sunday's victory came courtesy of the Bucs defense. The Bills ran 82 plays to Tampa Bay's 50 and held the ball for more than 36 minutes. But Rob Johnson took a beating and actually was knocked out of the game for several plays by a vicious tackle by Brooks in the fourth quarter. That play epitomized the effort by Brooks, who tackled Johnson as he released a desperation pass, sprang to his feet and ran down running back Shawn Bryson about 30 yards downfield, drawing a penalty for a late hit out of bounds. "I ran too far not to hit somebody," Brooks said. "I guess next time I'll try to cause a turnover and not get a penalty."

After the play, Sapp drew an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for helping himself to a drink of water on the Bills sideline. Lynch tried to calm Sapp down. But as the Bucs witnessed this week, there's no controlling Sapp. Lynch also disagreed with Sapp's message and his method of delivering it.

"I think it's essential that things like that stay in the locker room," Lynch said. "I'm not going to be mad at Warren for it. We talked, and I told him how I felt. And it's done. I don't really agree with what he said. As far as Les Steckel, he's been very successful elsewhere. And I think to a certain extent, for a first-year offense, we've been extremely successful. We've never put up this many points before. And also, I think you've got to know your role sometimes. Warren is a leader on this team. I just think it's essential you believe in what you're doing."

After the game, Sapp had no remorse for what he had said about Steckel. "It's said now. It's gone," Sapp said. "This team is right where it needs to be. We're playing good ball at the right time with some good opponents that we feel we can take advantage of. Once this team gets in the playoffs, I'll take my chances with 60 minutes or go home. No doubt about that. Minnesota is the bad a-- in the NFC? C'mon. Then Detroit? Washington? C'mon."

After Sunday's victory, at least maybe Sapp can save his words for the Bucs' opponents. "You've just got to believe in yourself," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "Believe in this team, believe in the players on offense, believe in the players on defense, believe in the coaches that they're doing the right thing."

Rick Stroud , The St.Petersburg Times 2000