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'Skins expose defense's flaws

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published August 25, 2002


TAMPA -- Yep, you have to hand it to Steve Spurrier. When it comes to helping his fellow coaches, the guy does what he can.

Consider Saturday, when Spurrier returned to Florida, shook a few hands, called a few plays and pointed out, in his own subtle way, a few things lacking with the Bucs defense.

He pointed out, for instance, the Bucs might want to be better there.

And there.

And especially over there.

Hey, don't thank him. He's a people person, that Spurrier. He cares to share.

The son returned to Florida on Saturday, prodigious if not prodigal, and he asked the musical question: Did you miss me? It was the same old ballcoach, the same old offense, the same old results. Sadly, the Bucs were in the role of Southwestern Louisiana.

In the end, Spurrier's Redskins defeated the Bucs 40-10 in a manner so thorough Tampa Bay might consider going back to Disney to squeeze in a few more days of training camp.

The Bucs didn't just get beaten.

They got Goffed.

Unless you want to accuse Spurrier of running it up -- and doesn't everyone? -- then the final margin shouldn't worry you. What should be a concern is how hard the Redskins were on the Bucs' first defense.

The Bucs were left insulted and injured. The prime concern is defensive end Marcus Jones, who left with a knee injury. Then there are the bruised egos. Spurrier was like the pushy guest who comes in and points out how you should rearrange your furniture. Maybe it's a little rude, but maybe he's right.

photo
[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
The Bucs' pirate mascot carries an inflatable gator wearing a Redskins shirt during the game.
To recap, Spurrier suggested the Bucs might want to stop the run a little better. He pointed out the tackling could be better. He indicated they need a little better play from their nickel back. He hinted that penalties are bad.

And who says Spurrier doesn't worry about the defense?

Yeah, yeah, it was only a preseason game. Technically. But Spurrier seemed to treat this like a little more. He acted as if the franchise still owed him money from the beating he took in 1976.

In the lingering argument over whether the Bucs are better off with Jon Gruden or Spurrier, no one would consider this admissible evidence. By the end of the first quarter of the first regular-season game, no one will care. Except, perhaps, Spurrier.

Still, it was disappointing to see how easily the Redskins moved the ball. You expect more from the Bucs defense than this. Frankly, so do they.

"It was disappointing," safety John Lynch said. "We did some things that weren't indicative of the way we play."

Remember, this is the Bucs defense that has proclaimed itself on a quest to return from very good to great. Through the first two preseason games, it looked as if it were on its way.

Spurrier, however, spread the field, the same as he always has, then took advantage. On the Redskins' fifth play, Shane Matthews (like teammate Danny Wuerffel, an old Gator the rest of the NFL threw away) found Rod Gardner on the far side of nickel back Dwight Smith for a touchdown. Easy as Vanderbilt.

If that weren't disappointing, however, the Redskins' third drive was. They went 72 yards in 14 plays. The Bucs seemed off-balance the entire drive. And somewhere, Kentucky feels their pain.

"As Coach Gruden says, you get what you deserve in this game," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "For whatever reason, we weren't ready to play."

photo
[Times photo: Bill Serne]
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kifffin, left, and Redskins head coach Steve Spurrier talk before the start of the game.
Granted, much of this was a tribute to old Coach Superior of the Gators. This state was his stomping grounds for a long time, and he came back intent on continuing to stomp. The guy has been popular around here for 31/2 decades, and he seemed intent on making sure no one forgot his face.

Sure enough, no one did. When it flashed on the big screen, in fact, Bucs fans were so impressed they booed. (For the record, Spurrier will be calling each fan who booed to give him a piece of his mind.)

If you're asking, yes, Spurrier is ready for the NFL. As for the defense of the Bucs? More information is needed.

Spurrier aside, there are a lot of good offenses in the NFC. The Bucs will have to stop St. Louis and Green Bay, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Performances such as Saturday night's are unacceptable. Put it this way, if Stevie Ballgame was Superior, what does that say about the Bucs defense?

For all the talk of Gruden's offense, we have seen it only in flashes. It still is an untuned orchestra struggling mightily for all the instruments to hit the proper notes.

If the Bucs are going to be successful, particularly early, they must be a defensive team that can close the door. They must reverse the slide of the past couple of seasons. They need stronger run defense, crisper tackling, better coverage. They need a defense that will give the offense time to grow.

Unless it happens in a hurry, who knows? The Bucs might not make the Citrus Bowl.

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