Defense couldn't pick better time to be great again
As moments go, it might have been the homeliest in the history of South Florida. The sky, as gray as Robert E. Lee's underwear all afternoon, had gone dark. The rain continued to fall hard enough to be nicknamed by meteorologists, and the water ran down the helmets of the players and across their face masks until it appeared they were looking at the opposing huddle through a waterfall. The ground was a mud pile. Perhaps worst of all, it was late in the fourth quarter, and the lead was in jeopardy.

It was then, in the ugliest of moments, at the most desperate of times, the lost feeling finally returned. And where has it been? "The taste," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We finally had it back."

This is what has been missing, Brooks said. All year, even in the victories, the taste, the blood lust that once drove this defense to greatness, has been absent. Now, with the Dolphins slogging toward the end zone, the wonderful, confident feeling was back, and all was right again in Brooks' world. Who knows how a moment of clarity arrives on a cloudy day, but there it was. And suddenly, it didn't matter that the Bucs' offense stunk again, and it didn't matter that the Dolphins got a couple of flags, and it didn't matter about the rain, the park or the other things.

"This was the first time since last year's playoffs we've had the taste," Brooks said. "You've got to be on the field to know what that is. You've got to be in the huddle. You've got to look into my eyes and know I'm not going to be denied, or into the eyes of the guy next to me to know he isn't going to be. We've been missing that."

There was a fury to the Bucs defense in Sunday's 16-13 victory over Miami, an urgency that we have not seen most of this season. Good thing, considering the game was played where you usually find Dolphins - in the sea - and considering the finest play the Bucs offense made was when Warrick Dunn ran out of his own end zone to avoid a safety.

This was a team turning loose its defense, then telling the offense to stay the heck out of the way. In the biggest victory of the season, this was the best the defense has been all season. It intercepted four passes. It scored a touchdown. It set up two field goals. It choked off a late threat. They were as brutal as the day, as nasty as the weather. Jamie Duncan ran. Chidi Ahanotu blocked. Warren Sapp called penalties. Offense? They don't need no stinking offense.

Go ahead. Accept it. The offense isn't going to get any better. But on a day like this, you wonder if it has to. Once again, this defense may just pull the wagon and let the offense ride in the seats. First and goal is a mystery, and third and 1 is a catastrophe, and so what? Look at them. Brooks is limping across the locker room, his right knee stiffening on him. Lynch needs help getting his shoulder pads off, because his left arm doesn't function too well. Sapp looks at you with demonic eyes, eyes as red as his jersey.

They are a proud bunch. Because of that, they loved Sunday. They loved wallowing in the mud, dinging in the rain. "There was a special feeling all week," Lynch said. "It felt like last year's playoffs."

"We kind of ran them over," Ahanotu said.

For the record, that wasn't all Ahanotu said this week. He did quite a bit of talking, some silly. But give him this. He played his best game of the year. It was his rush, and his block, that enabled Duncan to run 31 yards with an interception for the Bucs' only touchdown. The best chatter, however, was reserved for Sapp, who is not so busy playing defensive tackle that he will not help out a back judge on occasion. Consider a first and 10 on the Bucs 19 in the dying seconds. Sapp put a good rush on Jay Fiedler, who threw the ball incomplete (one of the few times, one assumes, that a Bucs defensive back was not open). But Fiedler was not out of the pocket. "I told the official, 'That's intentional grounding,' " Sapp said. "He said, 'You're right.' " "I said, 'Thank you very much.' "

On the next play, Damien Robinson intercepted a Fiedler pass, and it was over. Oh, except for the celebration. The Bucs reacted like a team that had done something. It got excited. "You couldn't find enough people to hug," Brooks said. Oh, it isn't over. The feeling was back for a day, and the taste of superiority, but that doesn't mean the problems are cured. "I still don't think we're back to where we were," Sapp said. "That was a great defense last year, especially when the game got down and dirty. That was our signature. We still gave up too many yards out there. We had the Dolphins under our fingers, and we almost let them out. We're closer, but we're not there yet. We're going to get better, though."

Brooks thinks so, too. And by the way, he said, he isn't tired of the taste. "This was just an appetizer," he said.

Gary Shelton , The St.Petersburg Times 2000