Like Old Times
Marty Strasen, The Tampa Tribune, published 8 December 2003

Tony Dungy specialized in days like this, at least before he put on his high-scoring uniform as Indianapolis Colts head coach. Dungy, before he left Tampa, taught the Bucs how to win using a formula with little room for error. Sunday's performance would have made their old boss proud. The recipe: A defense that limits the run, hounds the quarterback and forces mistakes. Special teams units capable of making a clutch play every now and then. And an offense that, while frustrating to watch, takes advantage of miscues just enough to sustain an edge.

The Bucs followed that blueprint to a 14-7 win in New Orleans, keeping their modest playoff hopes alive and solving the Saints for the first time in four tries. Of course, you could discount all of the above and break down Tampa Bay's victory in two words: Aaron Brooks. That's how New Orleans fans will remember this one. The Saints quarterback fumbled four times, with the Bucs recovering three. The last came with the Saints less than 10 yards away from a possible tying touchdown midway through the fourth quarter.

But chalking up this outcome to Brooks alone would be ignoring a hard day's work by a shorthanded squad. For all the times these Bucs have absorbed justifiable criticism for not showing up to play with a Super Bowl title to defend, they deserve a helping of praise for giving a fiery effort when pride is seemingly the only thing left at stake.

The Bucs have long prided themselves on their defense. Sunday gave every indication that they still do. Yes, that was undrafted rookie Ronyell Whitaker playing for the first time in the Bucs secondary. Midway through the game, All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp left the game with an ankle injury. A thin defense looked slimmer than ever.

Was there any reason to believe the Bucs, under those circumstances, would be the first team in 10 weeks to keep Deuce McAllister from rushing for 100 yards? Could they stop Joe Horn from owning the end zone? Thanks to relentless pressure from the front four and their best tackling game since the season opener in Philadelphia, that's precisely what they managed.

Simeon Rice sacked Brooks three times. His teammates combined for another trio. When the Saints were driving for that potential tying score, Greg Spires got to Brooks in the backfield and knocked the ball away. When Martin Gramatica's second missed field goal gave the Saints a final chance in the last two minutes, Anthony McFarland powered his way to Brooks and set them back several yards.

The Bucs defense, it turns out, can still dominate. Was it a coincidence that two defensive backs - David Gibson and Ronde Barber - combined for the punt block and subsequent return that set up the winning score in the frantic final few minutes of the half? Was it a coincidence that a defensive tackle - Sapp - made the winning score with his second touchdown catch of the year?

For all practical purposes, defensive players were more responsible than anyone on the Bucs offense for the two touchdowns in 73 seconds that sank the Saints. It's not the kind of football Jon Gruden was hired to coach. It's not the kind that thrills fans, either. But it's the kind of football with which the Bucs veterans are familiar. And Sunday, it was the kind that made Tampa Bay tough to beat.

The Saints were their own worst enemy, to be sure. The Bucs played like they remembered the lessons they learned under the direction an old friend. And the way things have gone all year for the defending Super Bowl champs, any path to victory is one worth following.