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Breakdowns gnaw at defense despite rout

Bucs irked by a handful of big plays that nearly let Vikings back into it.

By KEITH NIEBUHR, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 4, 2002


Bucs irked by a handful of big plays that nearly let Vikings back into it.

TAMPA -- In their convincing win Sunday, the Buccaneers pressured Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper from start to finish, held dangerous wide receiver Randy Moss to four harmless receptions and had three sacks and two interceptions.

Another dominating effort?

Not exactly.

Though the Bucs had control virtually from the outset after Minnesota fumbled away the opening kickoff, the defense was, by many players' admission, shaky. "We go into every game trying to be a dominating defense, and this was a nondominating performance," cornerback Ronde Barber said.

Not for 60 minutes, anyway.

Early, the Bucs controlled the line of scrimmage and Minnesota did nothing with the ball. In falling behind 24-0 after three possessions, the Vikings netted 61 yards (39 in the first quarter) on 20 plays with a long of 12 yards, and each series ended with a punt.

But on one play, their offensive fortunes changed.

From the Minnesota 15, tailback Michael Bennett ran off left tackle, juked a defender and sprinted 85 yards for the longest touchdown in Vikings history.

"There was a breakdown in gap control," Bucs linebacker Al Singleton said. "You definitely don't want to give that guy a crease."

Bennett's run gave the Vikings life. On their next possession, they drove 61 yards, the highlight being a 28-yard Culpepper pass to Chris Walsh that set up Gary Anderson's 26-yard field goal as time expired in the half, pulling Minnesota within 24-10.

"We can't be giving up big plays like we did," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

The problem?

"Missed tackles," Brooks said.

Several Bucs said they would not judge the defense's performance until watching tape of the game. But others did not feel the need to wait to chime in.

"It was sloppy," Barber said. "It always seems sloppy when we play Minnesota. It's not something they do, it's things that we do. I missed a tackle and they went 50 yards. We had a breakdown in coverage and they hit a deep ball."

It is difficult to be overly critical of the defense.

After all, 84 percent of the Vikings' output came after they had fallen behind 24-0. But including Bennett's run, the Vikings gained 332 yards on their final 35 plays and nearly climbed back into it. Six plays covered 20 or more yards.

"At points," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said, "we made mistakes and they capitalized."

Tampa Bay's defense is the victim of its success.

Before Sunday, the Bucs led the league in total defense (237.9 yards per game) and pass defense (146.0) and were sixth in rushing defense (91.9). Minnesota passed for 220 yards and gained 173 on the ground. Bennett had 114 yards on 10 carries. Another 40-yard Vikings gain, an apparent first-quarter touchdown pass from Culpepper to Moss, was negated by a holding penalty.

The Bucs can take solace in the fact that when Minnesota threatened to make it close, the defense took its usual form. After the Vikings recovered an onside kick with 2:07 left in the third quarter, they started at their 46 down 31-17. But after Rice pressured Culpepper on first down, Culpepper threw an ill-advised pass over the middle that defensive tackle Warren Sapp intercepted.

Tampa Bay scored a touchdown six plays later.

"We did a lot of good things," Singleton said. "But for our standards, it wasn't the game we envisioned."

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