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Monster's ball

The Bucs defense continues its road rampage: no TD for third straight game away from home, scoring a TD in fourth straight game and knocking Falcons QB Michael Vick out of the game.

By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 7, 2002

The Bucs defense continues its road rampage: no TD for third straight game away from home, scoring a TD in fourth straight game and knocking Falcons QB Michael Vick out of the game.

ATLANTA -- The turf at the Georgia Dome is artificial, but that didn't stop someone from watering it.

So when the Bucs defense tried to dig in its heels Sunday in preparation for chasing Falcons quarterback Michael Vick, it was unable to get any traction on the slick surface.

"I just want to know why they wet the field? You got anything on that?" defensive tackle Warren Sapp asked. "I think they had a sprinkler system put in just this week. It (worked) for the first two series. We couldn't get our feet in the ground, we had to change shoes. I changed shoes, Simeon (Rice) changed shoes and (Anthony) McFarland changed shoes. We couldn't hunt like that."

By the start of the second half, the Bucs were picking pieces of Vick out of their new cleats. James Brown performed after the game Sunday, but the Bucs were the Godfathers of Sole.

Tampa Bay's defense continued its streak of not allowing a touchdown on the road this season, outslugging Vick before knocking him out of the game with a strained right shoulder early in the second half of the Bucs' 20-6 victory.

Vick completed 4-of-12 for 37 yards and was sacked three times, twice by Rice, who puthim out of the game. The Bucs also hindered his replacement, forcing backup Doug Johnson to throw three interceptions.

For the third time this season, linebacker Derrick Brooks punctuated a victory by returning an interception for a touchdown. But on Sunday, the pick was made by Sapp, who lateraled to Brooks for a 15-yard return for the score.

"I'm a Michael Vick fan, don't get me wrong," said cornerback Dwight Smith, who had two interceptions. "But you can't put a guy that high, it's too early. With all the things he's done, his record is like 2-7 as a starting quarterback in this league.

"He has speed, but we have team speed, also. He had never played a defense like ours."

Vick entered with a 101.1 pass rating, best in the NFC. But his rating Sunday was 42.7.

You have to go back to the '99 season to remember when the Bucs defense was so dominant. Since the opening loss to New Orleans, Tampa Bay has allowed 27 points, an average of 6.5 per game. The defense has scored four touchdowns and a safety.

"It's a great run," coach Jon Gruden said. "Again, we don't want to diminish what they've accomplished. At the same time, we're going to keep raising the bar. You know, it's one thing to hurdle an obstacle, it's another thing to meet the challenge of next week. We're not going to take anything for granted. We have a high standard that's established, that's going to be enforced. I'm really proud of that group of men on defense."

On Sunday, the Bucs needed help putting points on the board.

The score was tied at 3 at halftime, and Tampa Bay trailed 6-3 until late in the third when Keyshawn Johnson gave the Bucs the lead for good with a 76-yard touchdown catch, the longest of his career and his second score in the past 129 receptions.

The Falcons erred, leaving Johnson one on one with cornerback Juran Bolden, and quarterback Brad Johnson led him perfectly.

"I made the adjustment on the fly because of the coverage they gave us. It was just a good throw by Brad," Keyshawn Johnson said. "Everybody says we don't go vertical, even though we try. Hopefully, that will satisfy some people."

While the touchdown lifted the offense, it was a devastating hit by safety Dexter Jackson that ignited the entire team.

Trailing 10-6, the Falcons appeared to win a gamble, faking a punt that looked like a sure first-down completion at midfield from punter Chris Mohr to tight end Brian Kozlowski.

But Jackson drilled Kozlowski as the pass arrived, separating him from the ball that Smith intercepted. The play led to Martin Gramatica's 22-yard field goal.

"Me and Dwight Smith, we were double-teaming (Travis) Jervey, he was outside and he didn't release his normal release," Jackson said. "There was something fishy about it, so I left Dwight alone and when I turned around I just saw (Kozlowski) coming back across the field and I tried to get there before the ball was there. But the ball beat me there and I just hit him."

Smith said the play gave all the momentum to the Bucs.

"I almost didn't get the pick for looking at the hit," Smith said. "The hit was so big. We feed off each other. It seemed like it got us riled up and killed them. Usually, a trick play will do something like that, too. If you hit it, it's big. If you don't, it tears you down."

Gruden challenged the defense in a meeting last week to give him more effort, and the players listened.

"He asked us for 15 more minutes of work, whether it was in the weight room or the film room or whatever we did," Sapp said. "I think guys really took that to heart."

When Sapp took the field just before his interception, he strutted from hashmark to hashmark, waving his arms to the 10,000 or so Bucs fans.

"I looked up and it just looked like that north end zone (at Raymond James Stadium) to me," Sapp said. "It really did. There's a bunch of 99's and they're yelling, "Warren! Warren!' I've got to give them what they want.'

Rice and Greg Spires collapsed on Johnson, Sapp collected his second career interception and saw Brooks running free beside him as he was tackled by Falcons tackle Todd Weiner.

"Pitch it here, doom!"' Sapp said Brooks yelled. "Doom. Room doom. You know, you're roommate, your doom. "Pitch it here, doom.' I looked at him and I said, "Oh, that's easy. Here you go."'

Must be the shoes.

"Wasn't that unbelievable?" Gruden said. "I don't want to say too many things right now, I'm very happy we won. But what can you say about Sapp and Brooks and these guys. They are clutch guys, man. When they get a lead and they get a team in an obvious passing situation, that's when they're at their best."

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