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Defense just keeps reaching for stars

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By GARY SHELTON, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published November 25, 2002

TAMPA -- It was over quicker than you think. The last 20 minutes, it turns out, were just for show.

By the time the game finally ended, mercifully, the last rites had long been said, the undertaker was knee deep with his shovel, and coyotes were starting to gather nearby. By the time the gun sounded, and the Green Bay Packers were finally released from the field, it had all been over for some time.

For those of you writing the obituary, this game died with five minutes to go in the third quarter, when the Bucs scored and added a two-point conversion for a 14-7 lead. Despite the rivalry, despite Brett Favre, despite the Packers, it was done.

At that moment, Warren Sapp turned to Derrick Brooks on the sideline and said this.

"That's plenty," he said. "Two field goals doesn't beat us now. That's plenty."

This is how they think, that relentless bunch of carnivores known as the Bucs defense. They are vicious, cocky, dangerous. They are fast, focused, brutal.

Also, this: They are the best defense Tampa Bay has seen.

Go ahead. Continue to talk about 1999 if you wish, about how that defense strapped an offense across its shoulders and made it all the way to the NFC title game.

Yes, that defense was good.

This one is better.

Are there any doubters now? After the way the Bucs made a very good Packers team look ordinary, after the way they made Brett Favre look like Rodney Peete, how can you doubt this defense measures up to even the best ones the Bucs have had? How can you not think that, with a little help from the offense, it could be a nightmare for an opponent to face in the playoffs?

"This is the best defense I've ever been on," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We have 11 players hungry as hell to make the playoffs."

"Over a 10- or 11-game stretch, we've never been better," Sapp said.

Once Favre stops talking to himself, perhaps he'd agree. The Bucs drove him batty on Sunday. Favre threw four interceptions and finished with a rating of 36.6. Thirty-six six. That isn't a rating. That's a temperature.

This is the disdain with which the Bucs treat the great players of the league. You say you're a star? The Bucs are a black hole, draining all the power right out of you. They treat the best players in the NFL like they were the new kid in school, the one with the bow tie.

Favre is in good company this year. The Bucs have pretty much bullied the bulk of the Pro Bowl. Consider:

Kurt Warner threw four picks against the Bucs this season.

Marshall Faulk had 9 yards on six carries.

Randy Moss caught four passes for 41 yards.

Michael Vick hit 4 of 12 for 37 yards, and he ran one time for 4 yards.

Even with the success of the Eagles against the Bucs, Donovan McNabb threw for only 127 yards.

So who wants some of this defense? Oh, Mike Sherman wants a taste, it appears. Sherman was upset at Warren Sapp's hit against Chad Clifton Sunday, and he decided to stroll into Sapp's face. Poor Mike. Odds are, he'll wake up today in cold shivers and say "I said what? To who?"

Say what you want about Sapp's hit, but face it. This isn't figure skating. Expect two things this week, though. The NFL will officially poo-poo Sapp's hit, and maybe he'll be fined. Then the NFL will rush the highlight onto its next Greatest Hits tape.

The point is, the Bucs, ruffians that they are, seem to love the idea of going up against the marquee players of the league. Hey, you don't get to be the Fastest Gun Alive until you shoot the guy who used to be.

"If you want to become a big-time player in this league," safety John Lynch said, "you have to do it against big-time teams and big-time players."

"We want the best you got," Sapp said. "That's where you find out if you've got the right stuff. We love 15-round fights. We love those snot-to-snot games."

Good defense, like bad offense, is nothing new for the Bucs. Most of these players have been on very good defenses around here for years. But this defense is starting to look as if it's something special. It leads the NFL in eight categories, including yardage and points allowed. It's good enough to make you think of how Baltimore rode its defense to the Super Bowl in 2000.

Still thinking about '99? Compare its final 11 games (counting playoffs) with the Bucs' 9-2 start. This defense has given up almost 200 fewer yards and 31 fewer points. It has 11 more sacks and five more interceptions. The secondary is better. The defensive line is deeper.

How good is this defense?

It's good enough to make you appreciate ugly games. It's good enough to make you think maybe it can drag the offense through the playoffs. It's good enough to make you compare it to the best ones that have been assembled. It's good enough to have given the Bucs the best record in the NFL.

Oh, yeah. It's good enough to make opposing coaches grumble as they leave the field.

Ask yourself. Did the Ravens ever do that?

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