Gang-tackling Bucs prevent an offensive TD for third straight game.
By GREG AUMAN, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 14, 2002
TAMPA -- For Shelton Quarles, the key to the Buccaneers' defensive success -- no offensive touchdowns allowed in the past three games -- is the swarming nature of their defense. There's enough team speed, all focused on the football, that it's rare that an opponent goes down at the hands of a single defender.
"One person holds them up and everybody comes to the party," said Quarles, who matched the team high with eight tackles in Sunday's 17-3 victory against Cleveland.
Sunday was a three-hour defensive party, one in which the Browns entered their final drive with as many punts (nine) as first downs. Cleveland went in averaging 24.8 points and ranked 10th in scoring offense, but it needed a fourth-quarter 50-yard field goal just to get on the scoreboard.
"We didn't get the shutout. We were looking for the goose egg today. We really were," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "We thought it was something we could obtain, something reachable for us. They got three, but that wasn't enough for them."
Sapp, who entered with a team-high four sacks, brought down quarterback Tim Couch twice for losses of 7 and 10 yards. Couch wasn't the only one struggling at the line of scrimmage: The Browns finished with 23 plays that netted 1 yard or less. A meaningless last-minute drive was all that allowed them to finish with even half the 351.4 yards they were averaging.
The reason? Everywhere they went, there seemed to be three Bucs waiting.
"Everybody's running to the ball," said Quarles, in his first season as starting middle linebacker after three outside. "That's one of the biggest things we wanted to do going into the season, was getting to the ball. It's something we were lacking a little last year. We didn't have the hustle we had in '97, '98, '99. We're getting back to the way we used to play, and everything's going good."
The Browns got no closer to the end zone than the Tampa Bay 31 as the game finished. Of their 11 previous drives, seven went for 15 yards or less and only one involved more than one first down.
Quarles, who leads the Bucs with 58 total tackles, is in his first season calling plays in the huddle. He said he feels more comfortable each week and can turn to veteran Derrick Brooks (who called defensive plays last season) when he needs help.
Sapp said the defense has played well under Quarles' on-field direction.
"He's our middle backer. It's his huddle," Sapp said. "He calls it, he gets us in the right position and we go from there."
Sapp's sacks allowed the Bucs to match an NFL record for the longest streak of games with at least one. The last time Tampa Bay went without one was in October 1999, a run of 50 games, equaling the Broncos from 1994-98.
The comfortable finish allowed Sapp to play to the crowd and celebrate the Bucs' first home game in three weeks. The biggest cheers might have come when he stepped into the offensive huddle in a late goal-line situation; he lined up as a tackle eligible on the left.
With the Bucs winning five straight and a defense allowing a NFL-low 9.2 points per game, Sapp said there's good reason for the enthusiasm among the players.
"We're buzzing. You can look in our eyes, see the smiles. That's just us," he said. "When we're on our game, it looks like we're bouncing to the music, but we're locked in. We're funneling all our energy on one thing: stopping them, getting off the field on third down and giving our offense the ball."