Stand-up D gets the job done again
Gary Shelton, The St.Petersburg Times, published 25 November 1996

Somebody was about to make a play. There was no question about it. Somebody was about to do something. Somebody was about to be somebody. Perhaps there was doubt in the stands, because there still was doubt on the scoreboard. The Bucs were one play away from letting a good day's work go to waste, and for fans who have seen too much of it in the past, it was like death in the air.

In the huddle, however, there was no doubt. The Tampa Bay Bucs looked at each other, and the voices filled the huddle, and the only question was which guy was going to be lucky enough to make something happen first.

The score was 13-7, on a day that had belonged mostly to them, but now it all was in doubt. The Saints were on the Tampa Bay 39, first and 10, five minutes to go. It was one of those haunting moments that dredge up all the familiar memories. A mediocre opponent slipping in at the end to mess up a nice little run. Who hasn't heard that one?

In the huddle, that wasn't the conversation. Instead, there was this growing feeling that someone, somehow, somewhere, was going to make something happen. That the Saints might have the game in their hands, but someone on this defense was going to rip it away.

John Lynch remembers the voices. His own. Hardy Nickerson's. Warren Sapp's. People talking about how it was time to make a play. There was nothing different about the words - except that they were not hollow anymore. "We feel we're in a turning point," Lynch said. "We kept saying that this was going to be the telltale drive. This was the time for someone to make a play so we could win the game."

Chidi Ahanotu remembers the eyes. There have been past Bucs huddles in past seasons when this situation would make the eyes round, like a fighter's as he tries to hang on despite the knowledge that he is finished. No more. "There are no wide eyes," Ahanotu said. "Now, the eyes close and get slanted. We go for the kill. Nothing fazes this defense."

The ball was snapped, and the difference was obvious to everyone. Jim Everett stepped back and threw, and Lynch ran under the ball and cradled it for an interception, and the Bucs had won another one. One more time, they showed they are a team of a different cut. You need a play made, and someone makes it. You need a drive stopped, and someone stops it. This is a defense growing into something special, because it doesn't mind the moments when it has to be special.

For seven straight weeks, it has held opponents to fewer than 17 points. For six straight weeks, it has not surrendered a point in the fourth quarter. For six straight weeks, it has given up less than 300 yards. Those are impressive numbers. But football is about more than numbers. It is about big plays, defining plays that leave the winners to grin and the losers to gripe.

This defense has been making these kinds of plays since Sapp sacked Warren Moon at the end of the Minnesota game to preserve that victory. It managed a three-and-out against Oakland in overtime. Lynch intercepted a pass against San Diego, then another one against New Orleans. "If it hadn't been me, someone else would have made a big play," Lynch said.

They believe that, and the way they are playing encourages you to believe it, too. That if it isn't Lynch it will be Brooks and if it isn't him it will be Sapp or Ahanotu or Marts or Abraham or Upshaw. Or somebody. "When it gets down to crunch time, someone is going to step up and make a play," Nickerson said. "There is no panic. At the end, I knew someone was going to do something."

This is such a step for a defense. Earlier this year, one defensive stop would have beaten Denver. Another one would have beaten Seattle. Both times, the opportunity was lost. These days, that doesn't happen. Nothing gets away anymore. "We don't change all the time like we did last year," Sapp said. "We go out and play aggressive. Let the other team counter us."

He is so much of a better player now, Sapp. He says he has been unshackled, and he plays that way. But that's the reason for the improvement of this defense - so many players are better now than they were only six weeks ago. Around here, that is unheard of. How much did Santana Dotson improve here? Keith McCants? Broderick Thomas?

But this is a defense where the players are getting better, and the future looks as certain as another big play. This defense will not allow anything else to happen. In this locker room, no one doubts that, either.