Defense good for nothing
In the final game, the Bucs defense finally zeroed in. But even as they were making a statement by shutting out the Bengals, nobody was supposed to squawk about it. "We were a little nervous because our coaches started talking about it in the middle of the fourth quarter," defensive tackle Brad Culpepper said. "It's kind of like a baseball no-hitter. You don't want to talk about it.
"Tony (Dungy, coach) came over and said, 'Listen, you've got the shutout, we've never had one.' I was like, 'Shhh.' Then Rod (Marinelli, defensive line coach) was saying, 'Yeah, shut up.' A couple of the guys were saying, 'Hey, let's save the shutout.' I said, 'Hey, hush.' I guess we dispelled that theory because we ended up shutting them out. Had they scored, that would have been the reason: Too many people were talking about it."
By silencing the Bengals, the Bucs recorded only the third shutout in club history and their first in 13 years. The others occurred at home. Tampa Bay defeated Kansas City 3-0 in 1979 and the then-St. Louis Cardinals 16-0 in '85. Sunday, the Bucs had help. Bengals quarterbacks Neil O'Donnell and Jeff Blake are out for the season. And starter Paul Justin was knocked out of the game in the first half with an injury to his throwing hand after a sack by Regan Upshaw. Former Florida and Marshall quarterback Eric Kresser was no match for the Bucs, who intercepted him twice.
Tampa Bay held Cincinnati to 246 total yards, 54 on the first two plays. The Bengals also were 2-of-10 on third down.
"The guys were really fired up about that and wanted to keep it in the second half," Dungy said. "You do get a little advantage when you get ahead. They're not able to kick field goals. They're going for it on fourth down. That helped us. And then, too, obviously, their quarterbacks being injured (helped us). But it was good to see our guys really step up and play, and I know they really wanted the shutout badly."
Perhaps no player was more responsible for the shutout than cornerback Ronde Barber. First, he made a touchdown-saving tackle of Corey Dillon on a 46-yard screen pass in the first quarter. Barber killed another drive in the second half by intercepting a Kresser pass at the Tampa Bay 1 and returning it 56 yards.
"Dillon is a good, big, fast back. He shocked some people," Barber said. "He shocked me. I thought I had a good angle on him and ended up having to dive for him. He put us in some situations, but I think we responded when we had to. Looking back on it at the end of the game and we got the shutout, that was a big play."
The Bengals' best scoring chance came when they took the second- half kickoff and marched from their 20 to the Tampa Bay 7. On fourth and 3 and trailing 28-0, the Bengals went for the touchdown, and Darnay Scott caught Kresser's pass in the end zone with one foot out of bounds. What made the shutout even more impressive was how many defensive starters were not part of it. Defensive end Chidi Ahanotu and linebacker Hardy Nickerson are on injured reserve. Safety John Lynch left after the first series with a pulled thigh muscle.
"We'd been so close so many times," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We've actually played better at times but missed the shutout. It was nice. The thing, too, is our offense did a good job. They used the clock there at the end. It's a nice feeling. A lot of defenses will let up at the end of the season. Their tackling gets sloppy. It's a long season. They're sitting there banged up. Then John Lynch goes out the first series of the game, and of course Damien Robinson has been out for the year, so Tony Bouie and Eric Vance have to play the whole game and did a nice job. To get a shutout without Hardy Nickerson, Chidi and John Lynch, you've got say is a pretty good job."
Rick Stroud, The St.Petersburg Times 1998