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Kiffin's in charge of the defense, as always

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[Times photo: Kevin White]
Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin says the defense will limit mental mistakes. “There is no defense in the NFL that ever will play smarter than us.”
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 6, 2002

LAKE BUENA VISTA -- The Bucs turnaround as a franchise can be traced to the owner's decision in 1996 to hire Vikings defensive coordinator Tony Dungy to become the team's sixth coach.

In the years since, Dungy's passion for disciplined defense, his belief in the one-gap scheme and his insistence that you win with speedy and thoughtful defensive players has become the identity of the team.

But while Dungy may have been the architect of the defense, he had one of the game's best foremen to oversee construction: defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin.

Hired by Dungy in 1996 and entrusted with the day-to-day running of the defense, Kiffin almost always was on the same page with Dungy professionally, a relationship dating to the three years they coached defense with the Vikings in the early 1990s.

"Because Tony and I had worked together for so long we would bounce things off each other, but he would come in during the week and know exactly what we were doing," Kiffin said. "He and I could communicate really quickly on it because we had been in the system for so long together. We knew the defense so well, he would let us do it on our own."

But now that Dungy is gone, can the Bucs' defensive scheme remain unchanged? Will Kiffin get from his players this season the same output he got in the past?

"I think he's always called the shots," All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "He just asked for (Dungy's) opinion. You have a genius sitting beside you, you'd be a fool not to ask for his opinion. ... But Monte has been around this game since 1970. He knows what he's doing."

Most important, the Bucs are certain that what once was Dungy's defense now is Kiffin's defense.

"When you've been with a man as long as him and Tony were together, you tend to want to call the same things," Sapp said. "It wasn't like 531/2 yards, the whole width of the field, between their thought process. Just a little here, a little there. ... But it's (Kiffin's) defense. You better believe it."

Entering his 20th season in the league, the former offensive and defensive tackle at the University of Nebraska is partially credited for much of the Bucs success. Under Kiffin's coordination, the Bucs have allowed the fewest touchdown passes in the league the past five seasons (74 TDs in 2,651 passes). During that time, the Bucs allowed the fewest points in the NFL (1,342) and put countless players in the Pro Bowl. Last season, the Bucs finished ranked sixth in the NFL in total defense.

So it came as no surprise that when Dungy was fired, ownership made it a priority to lock up Kiffin and the rest of his defensive staff, even before the hiring of new coach Jon Gruden. Gruden is the de facto offensive coordinator and spends significant time focusing on the offense. He has complete faith in Kiffin's judgment.

"Should we have changed everything on defense, I think the perception would then be that we're going to become an offensive football team, with an offensive head coach," general manager Rich McKay said. "But that shouldn't be the perception now because we did make a concerted effort to stay with the defense we've run with in the past, same scheme, same players."

On the roster, not much has changed. Sapp is back. Simeon Rice, Anthony McFarland, Derrick Brooks, John Lynch and Ronde Barber too. In fact, the Bucs begin the season with only one new starter on defense from last year's team. Al Singleton, in his sixth year with the Bucs, will start at strongside linebacker, in place of Shelton Quarles, who moved to the middle.

With such stability, and the return of position coaches Rod Marinelli (defensive line), Joe Barry (linebacker) and Mike Tomlin (secondary), Kiffin said the defense can afford to hang on to its old tenets -- play aggressively, play fast, play smart.

"Not a lot else goes into that," Kiffin said. "You have to be quick. We're not big on size, but if you're big and fast then I'm cool. But we're never, ever going to sacrifice quickness for size. We're just not going to do it.

"And we're going to be smart. There is no defense in the NFL that ever will play smarter than us. You can't find one. I don't care what. You see, they don't have rankings about how smart you play."

The Bucs likely will blitz a bit more and could play with a tad bit more aggression. But Kiffin still will be Kiffin.

"I don't think I'm going to coach any differently," he said. "I was pretty much a hands on guy and always have been. Tony was low key, but it really didn't change my style."

Added McKay: "Yes, it is Monte's defense to run. You will see (differences). I just don't think you'll see it where it's wholesale, where it's completely different. You may see a different type of approach on blitzing, maybe Monte will take more chances than maybe (Dungy) would have taken."

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