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Defense has more defining moments

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 7, 2002

ATLANTA -- There are times, when the lights are going out, you almost feel sorry for the opponent.

There are times, when the air is thin, when the roads are closed, when the sound is that of a predator snapping bones as he eats, you imagine what it is like to stare into the eyes of the men who play defense for the Tampa Bay Bucs. This is usually accompanied by a shiver down the spine.

There are times, and this game was filled with them, when all you can do is shakeyour head at the relentless hunger of the Bucs defense.

It was at it again Sunday. The Bucs defense, six years into viciousness, plundered and pillaged once more. This time, it was the Falcons at the bottom of the pile, 20-6.

As a season begins, you try to reserve your judgment. A team doesn't become great by bullying a team like the Ravens, or the Bengals. Or, for that matter, the Falcons.

But week in, week out, this keeps happening. After a while, you have to admit it. These guys are pretty good.

Maybe, they're better than that.

* * *

Snapshot No. 1: Warren Sapp, unleashed.

It is late in the game, and Sapp has turned into a performance artist. There is still a game to be won, and he's clowning and cavorting to the Bucs fans in the crowd. His eyes are wide, his mouth is wide open and his arms are spread to resemble an airplane in flight.

"Mayday! Mayday!" he is saying. "The ship is going down!"

At a moment such as that, maybe you think Sapp is out of the game mentally. Maybe you are shaking your head.

Then, on the next play, the next play, Sapp intercepts a pass. Then, turning into Jamelle Holieway, he pitches to Derrick Brooks, who runs it in for the clinching touchdown.

"This is a lot of fun," Sapp says.

* * *

Around here, when the Bucs are playing well, you cannot help but flash back to the end of the '99 season, when the Bucs were sharks in the water, devouring anyone who waded in.

Mention that to them these days, and the faces of the players pinch up and shift, and darned if everyone doesn't look like Jon Gruden.

"We're not living in the past," Brooks says. "We're trying to set a new standard."

So far, they're doing it. Take Brooks, for instance. Is it legal to take a linebacker for your fantasy team? He's scored three times in four weeks, and the people who name the Defensive Player of the Year Award need to learn his phone number. Just in case.

"We're playing at a level I don't think anyone has seen from us," Ronde Barber said. "We're making plays we haven't made around here."

The tally this day? Four interceptions. Five sacks. Two field goals. And this leg? Doesn't it belong to Warrick Dunn?

That'll do.

Snapshot No. 2: Michael Vick, unimpressive.

Vick, the young Falcon destined for stardom, rolled to his right, and like every time, you waited for something to happen. Coming into this game, Vick had been a personal highlight film. He has made opponents look silly, and the Bucs were talking of him in the same tones they talk of great athletes such as Barry Sanders.

Then there was a flash, and Simeon Rice was on top of Vick, riding him to the ground. Vick sprained his shoulder, and he was gone from the game. Suddenly, the Bucs didn't have to beat Vick, they had to beat Doug Johnson. Johnson, if you remember, was not the greatest quarterback the Florida Gators ever had. For that matter, he wasn't the greatest quarterback the Devil Rays ever had.

Vick? He was 4 of 11 passing, with two picks and three sacks.

"He's the great white shark," Sapp said. "You have to cage him."

* * *

The standards are high for the Bucs. So high, they get criticism for every B on the report card.

It's fine people expect a lot, John Lynch says. So do they.

Last week, for instance, Bucs coach Jon Gruden asked them for 15 minutes more. In the weight room. On the field. Somewhere.

"We like having high standards," Lynch said. "For us, that's important. Even in this game, people were getting frustrated because the Falcons were making some plays. Sometimes, it's like we don't expect the other team to make any yards at all."

This is their fate. The defensive players are cursed to be forever waiting on the offense to catch up to them. Every week, most of the game is in their hands. Most weeks, they grab its throat.

"We're on the verge of being a great defense," Jackson said. "Right now, we're just good."

* * *

Snapshot No. 3: Brian Kozlowski, uncovered.

Early in the fourth quarter, it still was a game. The Falcons were at their 34 and decided to fake a punt. For a moment, it looked like a smart thing to do. Punter Chris Mohr pulled up, and Kozlowski was running alone.

But safety Dexter Jackson thought something was fishy. He turned and saw the ball headed toward Kozlowski, and he delivered a hit so vicious that, if you were watching at home, cleared your nostrils. Not to say Jackson knocked Kozlowski into next month, but if you want to know what happens on the next three episodes of The Sopranos, Koz can help.

For the Bucs, this is a very good sign. This season, Jackson has been the playmaker he was not a year ago.

"That hit is what you call a damnson," Sapp said. "You know ... damn, son!"

* * *

Mongols. Warren Sapp was talking about Mongols.

Borrowing from defensive line coach Rod Marinelli, this is how he sees the defense. As a ruthless bunch of renegades taking what they want.

"The Mongols would ride into a village, and they would put sentries at different posts," Sapp said. "If someone escaped past your post, they would cut off your head. That's how this defense is. No one is getting past my post."

Oh, the games get bigger. You don't become legendary in October, and not against the level of teams the Bucs have beaten. If this is going to be the best of all Bucs defenses, it will have to prove it down the line.

So far, however, it's as good as its expectations.

Soon, it might be even better.

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