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Taming the beast

Bucs have the Rams' number, holding them to fewer than 18 points in two of the past three meetings.

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 22, 2002

ST. LOUIS -- With the Bucs hosting the Rams on Monday night, linebacker Don Davis knew early last week he would get a few calls from his old Tampa Bay teammates, needling him about the Bucs' two-game win streak over his team.

While the Bucs haven't dominated the Rams the way the Jets have the Dolphins, winning eight straight, it's obvious the Bucs make the Rams uncomfortable. The mere mention of the Bucs' recent success over the Rams -- Tampa Bay has held the Rams to fewer than 18 points in two of the past three meetings -- upsets coach Mike Martz.

"They really did (stop us) two years ago, didn't they? What was the score?" Martz said snidely in reference to the Bucs' 38-35 win at Raymond James Stadium in 2000, the only time in the past three meetings the Rams scored more than 17. "That was an exception, though. Doggone it, forgot that. How convenient, huh? We scored 35. They held us down pretty good."

Early in this series it was the Rams who dominated, winning nine of the first 11, including six straight between 1984 and 1992. But both sides agree everything changed during the 1999 NFC Championship Game in St. Louis. Their encounters became more than just a game. They became personal, especially after a handful of former Bucs signed with the Rams the past two seasons, fueling the trash-talking.

"Any time you lose to a team and then there's a lot of talk, especially with the ramifications around the first game, the NFC championship ... that just creates a rivalry in itself," Davis said.

The Bucs say they took the rivalry more seriously than the Rams. Since the NFC Championship Game, which the Bucs lost 11-6, they have gone after the Rams with a little more tenacity, which they believe has given them an edge.

It didn't hurt that the Bucs came into their past three clashes with a lot riding on the outcome. In addition to being one step from the Super Bowl going into the '99 game, the Bucs were fighting for home-field advantage in the playoffs going into the 2000 game and battling to stay in playoff contention at 4-5 going into last season's game.

"I remember when you come in to play the Rams, you always kind of geared up," recalled Davis, a reserve linebacker and special-teams player with Tampa Bay from 1998 to 2000 before becoming a frequent starter with the Rams last season. "You wanted to hit them in the mouth (because) they get a lot of press, a lot of publicity. I remember we used to really gear up for it.

"It seemed like every time we were going to play them our backs were against the wall, and you never wanted to catch that (Bucs) team with their backs against the wall because they always came out swinging."

The Bucs seemingly have gotten more shots in against the Rams, particularly on defense, than most teams. While quarterback Kurt Warner and running back Marshall Faulk ripped the Bucs in 2000 -- Warner threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns and Faulk had 132 total yards and four touchdowns -- they were noticeably tamed in the other two games.

In the '99 game, Warner was 26-for-43 for 258 yards but threw just one touchdown along with three interceptions. Last season, he was 19-for-39 for 291 with one touchdown and two interceptions.

Likewise, Faulk managed just 44 yards on 17 carries and caught three passes for 5 in the '99 game. Last season, he had 55 on 12 carries and two catches for 11, well below his season average of 98 rushing and 54 receiving.

Even in that high-scoring game in 2000 when Warner went over 300 yards, the Bucs had three interceptions. And his 77.1 passer rating for that game was one of the lowest among his 300-yard outings.

Many people think the Bucs' famed Cover 2 scheme, which plays the safeties deep, limits the Rams' big-play abilities. And the Bucs' physical play can disrupt the Rams' timing and concentration, much the way the Patriots did when they upset the Rams in the Super Bowl.

Others point to the Bucs' team speed, comparable to the Rams'.

"We match speed, that's it. You match speed," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "There's no question about it. You watch them against the Broncos (who beat the Rams in the season opener) and that's our defense (Denver) is playing. They're lining up and coming after them. It's funny to watch, but it's effective."

Perhaps there's no greater testament to the job the Bucs have done against the Rams lately, particularly defensively, than the Rams hiring former Bucs assistant coach Lovie Smith as their defensive coordinator last season.

"Obviously I love what they do defensively considering I hired Lovie," Martz said. "I think they are very well schooled at what they do. They know how to attack you."

He, of course, would know.

-- Times staff writer Rick Stroud contributed to this report.

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