Bucs on schedule to meet coach Jon Gruden's goal of nine TDs, with three in three games.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published September 30, 2002
CINCINNATI -- Before the season, Bucs coach Jon Gruden challenged his defense, considered one of the NFL's elite, to score nine touchdowns.
He dangled meat in front of the hungry beast.
Shelton Quarles' 25-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter Sunday made it three scores in three games. Well on pace.
"Gruden told us he wanted nine this year and guys took it to heart," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We're a third of the way. We're working, we're working."
Indeed they are.
It appears the swagger that became the identity of the defense in 1999 and early 2000 has not only returned but been polished.
In a 35-7 victory, the Bucs defense technically pitched its second shutout of the season, because the only Cincinnati touchdown was an interception return. But more than that, it demonstrated the philosophy of Buccaneer football -- total team effort, 11 hats on the ball, no mercy for the weak.
"It's probably the funnest time that you can ever be around a defense," said Sapp, who had two sacks and four tackles. "It's all 11 of us. It's not two or three, one or two, it's all 11 working together because it's a trust system. I have to trust that you're going to send him back to me and I'm going to turn him back to the next guy. When we're playing like that, we're tough to beat."
Okay, so these were the Bengals and quarterback Akili Smith was making his first start of the season. But in a league in which any team can win any day, Tampa Bay's defensive effort, which limited the Bengals to 168 total yards, can inspire the rest of the team.
"I think we're playing totally as a team," defensive end Simeon Rice said. "It's really top flight right now, first tier, and we're getting better. Week in and week out. Not just as a defense but as a team. And that's required. That's what we're trying to get done."
And where else do you begin but at the frontline. Sapp, Rice, Anthony McFarland and the rest of the defensive line were simply relentless. Smith had little time to react and little space to react in. He finished 12-for-33 for 117 yards, and the Bengals converted two of their 17 third downs.
"That's the pulse of the defense," cornerback Brian Kelly said of the frontline. "When those guys get to playing tough and hard and like they played (Sunday), you can see it. You can see it in the first series of the game.
"The quarterback's eyes get huge and he has no time to even think out there. It's definitely a big part of our defense."
Sunday, Sapp was particularly tough. He not only twice brought down Smith and frequently chased him into hurried decisions, but he helped stop the run. When Sapp is on like that, the Bucs usually are on.
"We weren't fearing him, at no time," Sapp said. "What was this, his 17th start? (Shaun) King's got more wins than he's got starts and he's our third quarterback.
"... It's all about us. If we come out and play our game, they can't fool with us, they can't play with us. Even when we give them seven (points) they still can't play with us."
But it wasn't just Sapp and the front four. The linebackers tackled as well as they could and did everything to stifle running back Corey Dillon, who finished with 59 yards on 21 carries. As a team, Cincinnati managed only 74 on the ground.
"Obviously, we're tackling better and that allows us to stop the run," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "That also gives us a chance to let our linemen go in certain situations, and it allows us to blitz and surprise blitzes. When you stop the run, there's a lot you can do."
And when you have no fear of the receivers grabbing first-down catches that helps too. Cornerback Ronde Barber (six tackles) continues to play well, and Kelly (two tackles, three passes defensed) seems to be coming into his own.
"We've probably played against some good offenses and some bad offenses and I think we've been pretty solid against both, excluding the New Orleans offense, early in the game," Barber said. "We're trying to have perfection and who knows when we'll get there.
"I don't know if we want to get there really. But we're playing as good as we can right now. It's probably the best we've ever played at this stretch of the season."