Defense Shines Without Stars
The Buccaneers, a team this season bent on confusing all football minds, isn't going to stop now. Fourteen games into the year and still there's no predicting how they will amaze you - hey, sometimes even in a good way - the next time. Rest assured, one way or another, they're going to. Like a drop of mercury on a counter top, the Bucs have made a habit of going one way just when you're betting they will go the other.

Take Sunday afternoon's game with the Houston Texans. Nursing a sprained left foot, All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp did not play for the first time in 73 games. Backup Ellis Wyms was lost early in the first quarter with a left knee sprain. After three sacks last week against New Orleans, premier quarterback tormentor Simeon Rice went the entire game without getting his hands on Texans rookie Dave Ragone.

So what happens? Only that the Bucs defensive front took over the game by turning Ragone into a human pinata while recording five sacks, allowing 65 yards rushing and helping limit Houston to 107 total yards, the second-lowest output by a Tampa Bay opponent in franchise history. ``Wow, that's stunning,'' defensive tackle Greg Spires said. ``But I kind of felt it out there. We had a good thing going.''

And going. And going. Spires got to Ragone twice for nine yards in losses. Anthony McFarland, who moved from his accustomed nose tackle position into Sapp's spot, got one sack. So did Chartric Darby, who typically backs up McFarland. And to really tell you what kind of day it was, the final sack went to Cleveland Pinkney, who on Saturday was re- signed to the active roster after having played only one previous game this season, the opener at Philadelphia. ``Well, they got some new blood out there with a rookie quarterback, and some of those sacks could have been avoided by just throwing the ball away or getting down and sliding,'' Ragone said. ``But you live and learn.''

Which could be exactly what the Bucs are doing. ``We are obviously going to miss a guy like No. 99, but the other guys stepped up,'' said safety John Lynch.

Since Sapp went out last week with an injury, the Bucs defense has gone six quarters without allowing a touchdown. On Sunday, Houston's offensive deficiencies were exposed like Paris Hilton on video, the Texans managing only seven first downs and barely 21 minutes of possession. That's not to say Sapp is any less a player than he has been, only that the Bucs suddenly appear capable of playing just as well without him.

With the big man's contract expiring at the end of this season and his future in flux, every sack and shutdown recorded with No. 99 on the sideline suggests the Bucs will grow less likely to break the bank to sign a deal. ``I'll tell you, I'm really proud of those guys,'' Coach Jon Gruden said of the defensive line. ``Rod Marinelli is the best defensive line coach I know, and we've got some players there. McFarland and Rice are players. Some of these guys, Greg Spires, Ellis Wyms and Darby are a lot better than people think. For the last six quarters they've played without Warren, they've done a heck of a job.''

McFarland played the position like a No. 1 draft pick is supposed to, finishing with three tackles and a forced fumble. There's more than a subtle difference between the responsibilities of his usual nose tackle spot and the less-limited under tackle position, and McFarland responded by producing his most eye-catching performance of the season. ``I don't mind being out there,'' McFarland said. ``It's nice having a little freedom out there. That's the difference between the two spots, a little more freedom.''

At this point of their season when perception may be as important as performance, the Bucs cannot help but look to the future. The reigning Super Bowl champs' playoff future continues to look slim at best. There's little left to do but make the best of a disappointing situation. ``We were coming off the ball together,'' Darby said. ``We were having fun. Everybody was celebrating, hitting, getting off the field, getting rest. The offense was getting first downs. We were happy on the sideline watching them play. That's just how it went the whole game.''

With Sapp on the bench. ``He's one of the best tackles to ever play the game,'' Darby said. ``He's a great player. We would all love for him to be back. But if things happen, this is oa business, we'll look at things then.''

Certainly, it's a team that has done stranger things.