With homefield advantage in the playoffs possibly at stake in one of the most important games of the season, the Bucs defensive backs provide the primary push to victory.
By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times, published November 25, 2002
TAMPA -- Brett Favre is the ultimate NFL gunslinger.
He is the stranger who rides into town with a quick draw, a great gun and a fearless heart.
But, as the Bucs know all too well, the man with countless notches on his belt has one flaw.
Favre shoots so often he will miss some targets, and good secondaries turn those misfires into interceptions. Good teams turn those turnovers into wins.
Sunday night, in a classic shootout between longtime rivals, the gunslinger missed and paid a heavy price.
The Bucs secondary, led by the outstanding play of Brian Kelly and Ronde Barber, intercepted the Packers quarterback four times and tormented his receivers to help lead the Bucs to a 21-7 victory.
"It's so simple," said left cornerback Kelly, whose two interceptions gave him six for the season and the top spot in the NFL. "All we're doing is what we're supposed to do. I know it sounds cheesy but that's all it is. We're making the plays we're supposed to make. We're making the plays in our area.
"When you're out there making plays, taking the ball away from them, giving your offense a chance to score, that's huge."
Huge is the way to describe so much of what happened in the Bucs secondary. Kelly, having a career season, picked off Favre midway through the third quarter to set up the Bucs' first touchdown.
On first down from the Packers 26, Favre tried to hit receiver Terry Glenn at the Packers 49 and Kelly made the grab. He returned it to the 18. The Bucs scored four plays later to take a 14-7 lead they never relinquished.
"I'm making a lot of plays in my area because I'm getting a lot of plays in my area," Kelly said. "What we've been saying is if you make more than you give up, you come out all right."
But Kelly, who entered the season with three career picks, is more than all right.
"Brian's a beast right now," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "He's taking advantage of them looking at Ronde and saying, "Nah, let's go over there.' He's relishing the opportunities right now. Brian is looking at it as, "Come on over here. Let me make some opportunities to help my team win some games.' He's working it right now. You've got to love it."
Added Barber: "Soon they're going to stop testing my boy over there. It's not a lot of places where you're going to find some unsound guys. We have a lot of guys who play technique ball, and when they have the opportunities we make plays."
It wasn't all Kelly. Barber, who had a Pro Bowl season last year with 10 interceptions, proved his mettle by playing six days after surgery on a broken thumb. His interception stalled a nine-play drive at the Bucs 15.
"I think it doesn't matter who the quarterback is, I think we're good," Barber said. "I'm not scared to say it. I think we're a good secondary. All four of us are solid technique guys and it shows up on Sundays.
"The thumb didn't bother me. I really haven't had any pain in it since the surgery, so there really was no issue whether I was going to go or not. It was business as usual."
But they weren't done. Free safety Dexter Jackson, maturing in his second year as a starter, helped close the deal midway through the fourth quarter. His interception and 58-yard return gave the Bucs first and goal at the 5. Tampa Bay scored three plays later on a 3-yard Ken Dilger reception.
"When I started running, I saw all the Green Bay players had led to the left, so I cut back and I saw my guys telling me to come on," Jackson said. "I followed them down to the 1-yard line. The only bad thing was I let Brett Favre tackle me on the 1."
While the defensive backs know their success is predicated on the defense's ability to stop the run and the defensive line's ability to rush the passer, making plays when they come has been a responsibility they have coveted all season.
The Bucs have 25 interceptions, tops in the NFL.
"We prepare all week knowing that we were going to be front and center and we knew who and what Brett Favre is," secondary coach Mike Tomlin said. "So, the challenge was going to be there. If you play good technique ball, opportunities will present themselves and you'll have the chance to cash in. We did that (Sunday). We cashed in."