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Bucs D has to have all of the answers

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published July 28, 2002

Everybody's talking about offense, suspense, better sense and future tense. Touchdowns and boomtowns, showdowns and meltdowns. And no clowns, no frowns.

And all we are saying, is give D a glance.

You know the tune. People around here can't stop talking about the offense. They talk fast and loud and continually about everything from the blocking fullback to the fourth receiver. They talk about offense as if it were a heart transplant, only more important.

They talk about acquisitions and transitions, about plays and players, about speed and need. They talk about offense as if one of the slabs Moses brought down from the mountain had plays carved upon it. They hold it up and turn it around to see every angle, like the tribesman who found the Coke bottle in The Gods Must Be Crazy.

There is a reason for this, of course. Around here, people have never seen offense. It is this mystical force that is supposed to arrive in Tampa Bay for the first time this season, and people cannot stop talking about it.

The defense?

That's the same as ever, right? Right?

Take Monte Kiffin, the head gonzo of this defense. Kiffin is on the phone. And he's talking about the offense, too.

"They're pretty good," Kiffin is saying. "They've made us better. We have to be prepared to go to practice every day. Every day, it's like playing the Rams on Monday night."

This column will now pause for several moments while you ponder the thoughts of the Bucs offense being compared with the Rams.

Please do not get drool on your newspaper.

The thing is, it seems no one ever talks about the Bucs defense. The defense is the car you have; the offense is the car you want. The defense is a great house you've lived in for five years. The offense is Aruba.

The Bucs defense is, pardon the pun, taken for granite. For five years, it has been in the top 10, and no one sees any reason it should relocate. Everyone expects the defense to shut off the water, close the door, turn off the TV. Every time, if it isn't too much to ask.

The reality is a little different. As the Bucs report to training camp today, the defense has a lot of questions that need answers, too.

"We've got to make sure we don't let up," Kiffin said. "The offense took a lot of heat, but we're responsible, too. We did our share of messing up last year. The last couple of years, I'd call us a good, solid defense. But I wouldn't call us great."

What do you think of when you think of the Bucs defense? Do you still think of that marauding, relentless team of the last half of 1999?

Or do you detect a little tarnish on the luster? In the minds of America, you get the feeling the reputation has slipped a notch. "One major injury from shambles. Maybe two," says the Sports Illustrated Web site.

Let's be honest. There were times last year when the defense leaked, when it could not hold on.

Remember Minnesota, when the Vikings had 96 yards to drive to win. And did?

Remember Tennessee, when 28 points by the offense wasn't enough?

Remember Pittsburgh, when the Bucs couldn't catch a bus? Or get one to stop?

Remember Cincinnati, when the Bengals -- the Bengals -- drove for the tying score in the dying minutes?

Remember Chicago? Remember Chicago, the sequel? Remember Philadelphia?

"When people think of the Bucs, they still think of a great defense," safety John Lynch said. "But we don't strike fear in the hearts of people the way we'd like to. If everything unfolded now, we'd have a great legacy. But we want that legacy to be even better.

"There were times last year when we were spectacular, when we did things as well as we've ever done it. But on a consistent basis, maybe we weren't as tough as we've been. A couple of people said, "Here we come, running down your throat.' A couple of times, people wore us down."

For a long time, this has been one of the strengths of the Bucs defense. Players don't try to fool themselves. They are a prideful bunch, and they are aware of the expectations.

Defensive tackle Warren Sapp, for instance, looks at last season's sixth-rated defense and says: "I'd give us a C, a C-minus," he said. "We aren't running to anyone's standards but our own."

"Unfortunately, it's a lot easier to remember the bad ones, isn't it?" Lynch said. "Coach (Jon) Gruden has gotten his little jabs in. He says, "You guys have been pretty good.' But he thinks we can be great. That's what has made us so good. We aren't satisfied."

General manager Rich McKay is kinder. He thinks the Bucs have been great. And he has fodder to back it up. Since Kiffin arrived in '96, no team has a better average ranking than the Bucs at 5.7. No team has surrendered fewer points since '97. No team has been as consistent; check out the Titans, who were first in the NFL in defense two years ago but fell to 25th last season.

"They've stood the test of time," McKay said. "I think they're being measured on a mystical eight-week run at the end of the '99 season when they played defense as well as anyone has ever played it. Other teams have had moments where they've gotten us, but in this league, teams are going to get you sometimes."

Perhaps. But greatness is only partially measured by numbers. It also is measured by moments; great defenses dominate the fourth quarter of close games. A year ago, this one didn't.

Who is going to play middle linebacker, where the team has missed Hardy Nickerson since he walked out the door? Left end? Right corner? Can safety Dexter Jackson make enough positive plays to offset his lapses? Can Sapp and Derrick Brooks stay healthy?

Then, there is this one. Will an improved offense help the defense or hurt it?

Throughout the history of the league, there have been offenses (the Marino Dolphins, the Coryell Chargers) who made it tough on their defenses. They didn't keep the ball long, they turned it over, they ignored field position. As bad as some of Tampa Bay's offenses have been, there were times (especially in '99) it was so intent on working the clock and playing field position that it helped the defense.

On the other hand, there have been teams -- the 49ers, the Cowboys -- who have managed to play great offense and great defense. Can the Bucs defense stand a good offense.

"Let me try," Sapp said, laughing. "I'll take my chances."

Said McKay: "I think it matters how you treat the clock. Jon has such a focus on running the ball, I think he's what you'd call a defense-friendly offensive coach."

For the Bucs to succeed, that needs to be the only friendliness the defense shows. Bottom line, this still will be a defensive team. If the Bucs are going to resume their climb, rather than restart it, they'll need the defense to be as good as ever. Lynch turns 31 in September. Sapp and Brooks are 29. Now seems like a good time.

Go ahead. Talk about the offense. Talk about blocking fullbacks and pulling guards and tight ends over the middle. Talk about draw plays.

The defense?

Quietly, it has to answer some questions, too.

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