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A monster defense? Prove it, Philly says

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published October 20, 2002

PHILADELPHIA -- In Green Bay, they know all about Warren Sapp.

It matters not if they love him or hate him; they know his name. They have seen his strength, his power. They remember him sprinting across Lambeau Field, dragging down Brett Favre, and the smack of the player being faster than the smack on the turf.

In St. Louis, they understand the fuss over Derrick Brooks.

Whether they bless him or boo him, they acknowledge Brooks' abilities. They have seen his speed, his skills. They remember him racing from sideline to sideline. They remember him sighting down Marshall Faulk and taking him down, a move few linebackers can claim.

In Chicago, they lift a glass to John Lynch.

Debate whether they fear him or flatter him; they have heard the sound of Lynch's arrival. They have seen his range, his recklessness. They remember the day he left John Allred, his own brother-in-law, lying on the grass of Soldier Field.

This is how a defense builds a rep, one play at a time, one city at a time. By playing like Ronde Barber against New Orleans last season, or Simeon Rice against the Ravens, or Booger McFarland against the Falcons. You run over somebody, and then you drop your resume on his prone body.

Across the nation, the members of the Tampa Bay Bucs defense have left their footprints. For six years now, they have run roughshod here and there.

Except in Philadelphia.

Where the fans aren't exactly impressed.

They are an opinionated bunch here in Philly, loud and abrasive. If you could teach profanity to pit bulls, you'd have a Philly fan. They are the last to be impressed by deeds done elsewhere. The Bucs? You might as well talk about Sasquatch. They've heard about him, too. But no one around here has seen him.

Around here, the Bucs defense is thought of as, well, fluffy. Cute. Cuddly.

"I'm sure we don't worry them," Lynch said, shrugging. "In two games, we haven't shown up. I think they probably respect the individual players here, but you can't blame them for not respecting the entire defense. If that bothers us, it's up to us to do something about it."

Why should the Eagles fans think any differently? In the past two playoff games, there has been a lot more sound than fury from the vaunted Bucs defense. In both games, the Eagles' Donovan McNabb has made a few plays, and the running backs have gotten on track, and the offensive line has won the wars.

Sapp? In two games, he has three tackles, six assists and no sacks.

Brooks? Nine tackles, seven assists, no forced fumbles or interceptions.

Lynch? Seven tackles, seven assists, one pass defended and no turnovers.

This is why Veterans Stadium has become the Bucs' Valley of Death. It is a cold, miserable boneyard where careers have ended and reputations have altered.

The knock on the Bucs as underachievers? It was born here. Oh, it's hard to grumble about the Bucs' first playoff loss under Tony Dungy, on the cold field of Green Bay. Or his second one, in St. Louis in the NFC title game.

But for the past two seasons, the Bucs have gone meekly from their seasons, every character flaw exposed to the world. The offense never looked more hopeless than in the two-game, no-touchdown series. The defense has never looked less resilient.

Remember two seasons ago? The Bucs lost 21-3 as the Eagles scored two touchdowns late in the first half, then took over in the third quarter. The first two Philly drives of the second half ate up more than 13 minutes, and the Eagles put away the game. It was the final game for Les Steckel, Chidi Ahanotu, Damien Robinson and Frank Middleton. Shaun King has not been a starter since.

Then there was last season, when the Bucs supposedly were going out to fight for their coach. But the Eagles averaged 5 yards a rush, and once it was 17-9 at the half, the game was over. Exit: Dungy, Clyde Christensen, Marcus Jones, Jamie Duncan, Donnie Abraham, Randall McDaniel, Jerry Wunsch, Warrick Dunn, Jacquez Green, Reidel Anthony and others.

"Those two walks off the field were long," Lynch said. "The plane rides home were long. The offseasons were long. We lost our poise. We let the game get out of hand before the score said it was out of hand."

Now, the Bucs return to the scene of the grime. And, like always, the offense is struggling. Once again, it is up to the defense to keep the game close until the Bucs make a big play.

"It doesn't matter what they think of us up there," Sapp said. "Respect isn't something you get an invitation to. It's something you earn."

Everywhere else, the Bucs have earned it. They are off to one of their best starts defensively. No one has allowed fewer points or fewer yards.

Brooks has three touchdowns and looks like the front-runner for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. Sapp has six sacks, his total all of last season. Lynch, despite a bad knee, still stops traffic over the middle. Teams don't challenge Barber often.

"It's fine (if people in Philadelphia doubt the Bucs). But I know what we got," Sapp said. "(Jon Gruden) won't let me talk about it, but I know what we got."

That's the thing. These days, everyone else seems to know what the Bucs have.

Except people in Philly, that is.

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