Defense goes cold this time
Hubert Mizell, The St.Petersburg Times, published 1 January 2001

Another cold day in hell. Not a stunner, really, seeing an erratic Tampa Bay offense perish in an Eagles deep freeze. Sunday's larger shock, assuring Bucs devastation, was their renowned defense, with four Pro Bowlers, being knocked out by the solitary punch of Philadelphia quarterback Donovan McNabb. Rocky Balboa lives!

Bucs tackling went sour. Their rushes of a nimble, creative McNabb were inconsistent, ineffective and eventually inept. Warren Sapp became a New Year's Eve mute. Derrick Brooks got handled. Donnie Abraham was burned. Philadelphia's crowd, at least the notorious Veterans Stadium element, needed not to heave icy projectiles at the Bucs, a practice of the past. Instead, the patrons would gloat and even laugh. By halftime, it was becoming evident Tampa Bay didn't have a snowball's chance. "They outhit us, which really hurts," Tony Dungy said. "Our pressure on McNabb was disappointing. When, late in the first half, we allowed the Eagles two quick touchdowns, going into a tough wind, it was a critical flaw."

Deadly, really. Tampa Bay's coach is a defensive whiz. Dungy can be guilty of tolerating too much mediocrity from his offense, setting lukewarm goals, but from the D his expectation is excellence. That's the department where the Bucs spend the most money on players. Defense is their cornerstone. This time, it cracked.

"Philadelphia took it to us," Pro Bowl safety John Lynch said. "Early, it seemed we'd come to play really hard. Tackling was crisp. After that turnover (Bucs quarterback Shaun King's fumble), the Eagles scored and then we allowed them to immediately come back and get another touchdown, driving it down our throats. It hurts that we didn't match their intensity. After that horrible stretch before halftime, we never again tackled up to our standards. We blew assignments. I have trouble believing Philadelphia is a superior team to us, but this time they were much the better."

McNabb, an NFL sophomore, peppered the Bucs with efficient, short passes. Then, when Tampa Bay began to defensively splinter, the 24- year-old Philly hero used his blurring scrambling to bite huge chunks out of Tampa Bay's defensive soul. They're still post-season road kill, these Bucs who openly expected to be Super Bowl XXXV contenders. Not only 0-20 in chilling temperatures, but 0-5 in playoff games away from Tampa.

Sapp, a blustery man known for QB sacks and colorful oratory, was a Sunday shutout on field and off. He couldn't get to McNabb. After the 21-3 failure, by the time reporters were admitted to Tampa Bay's dressing room, Sapp was gone. Sans comment. Oh, the fatal quiet. Chidi Ahanotu admitted being affected by the zero chill factor. "I was shivering," said the defensive end from Cal-Berkeley. "Just couldn't shake the cold."

Meanwhile, McNabb kept shaking the Bucs. "Last season, when we beat Philadelphia (17-5) and sacked Donovan six times, you could see he was a kid with guts," Ahanotu said. "This time, he was outstanding. McNabb is going to have a lot of great days." "Our main thing was to keep McNabb in the pocket," Bucs defensive lineman Anthony McFarland said, "feeling he couldn't hurt us without doing it with scrambles. McNabb is similar to (Minnesota quarterback) Daunte Culpepper, a good passer who can also hurt you with his feet."

Sunday was some McNabb feat. "We lost control," Dungy said, "allowing McNabb to make so many third-down conversions. Too often, it was third-and-short plays. With the abilities of Donovan, it's bad news to keep allowing those situations to arise."

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, travel bags slung over shoulders, dragged himself toward a Sunday night team bus. Heading for the season's final flight home. Brokenhearted. Perplexed. "I would've bet my life that we would've stopped the Eagles on that (61-yard) drive, allowing them to score just before halftime, going up 14-3," Kiffin said. "That took a lot out of us. In the third quarter, having dug ourselves a big hole, we needed a quick three-and-out performance against McNabb, but instead we would allow the Eagles to control the clock 12 1/2 minutes to our 2 1/ 2. When the fourth quarter began, they had taken over entirely. We didn't have our usual intensity. Didn't tackle like we usually do. I don't know why. Our defensive line didn't get much pressure on their quarterback. I don't know why. McNabb is good. An effective passer. Outstanding scrambler. But we did ourselves in by not having enough intensity, with poor tackling and by eventually losing control."

Guilty verdict for all.