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Tampa Bay has jelled and means to avenge Game 1 loss to slumping club.
By RICK STROUD, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 28, 2002
TAMPA -- Since their opening-day loss to New Orleans, the Bucs have felt as if they have spent the past few months chasing the Saints.
But now they are like two teams passing on an escalator, with Tampa Bay headed up carrying the NFL's best record and New Orleans going down to back-to-back defeats.
In fact, there is very little about the Bucs that resembles the team that lost 26-20 in overtime 12 weeks ago.
Their defense, which was pushed around for a half by New Orleans, has risen to first overall in the NFL, allowing 11.5 points per game. The offensive line, which yielded three sacks and couldn't open holes for the running game, has improved with the returns of guard Cosey Coleman and tackle Kenyatta Walker to the lineup.
And quarterback Brad Johnson has better command of Jon Gruden's offense, having gone 3-0 in November with nine TDs and no interceptions.
"I think when we played them the first time, that was another life," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "It was another day and age. This is right now; there's a whole other dimension to what we're doing. The elements are with us. We're playing well. The offense has really picked up its game.
"They're almost going to see another team. In terms of the first week, that was our first outing, that was an audition as to what we were going to do this year. We didn't showcase what we wanted to. Now we're kind of hitting on the course we wanted to. Things right now are picking up very well."
The improvement begins with the defense. Though Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks carved up the Bucs for 260 yards and two touchdowns, Tampa Bay is first in the NFL in passing defense and interceptions with 25. Deuce McAllister, who rushed 31 times for 109 yards in the opener, will face a defense that has risen to fifth against the run.
"You've got to throw all that first-game stuff out the window," Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "New coach, opening day, he gets beat at home. Other than Jon having a hard ride home, we haven't talked about that game. But that was like our rallying cry at the beginning of the year. We can't allow this (stuff) here to go on. It got us out to a five-game winning streak and then we go on a four-game winning streak. We're in a great position to make a nice run. Right now, this ballclub is focused on the task at hand and that's going to New Orleans with our game plan intact and our hard hats. Because it's going to be a 60-minute war. Make no mistake about that."
For Gruden, the loss to the Saints was particularly disappointing. It was his long-awaited debut as the Bucs coach after the organization shipped four draft picks to Oakland to acquire him.
"Hopefully, we've improved our execution and our togetherness over that time," Gruden said. "The guys playing then were pretty much the guys playing now.
"I think we've gotten to know each other. We had a lot of guys getting used to their new uniform, getting used to the new snap count, a new coaching staff and their way of doing business. Where are we going to stand during the national anthem? Do we have to stand together? Are we going to pray before the game? How are we going to do pregame warmups? There are a lot of things we've gotten in the groove with."
What once was considered a must-win game for the Bucs now is one of desperation for the Saints, who likely can forget about winning the NFC South with a loss Sunday night at the Superdome.
New Orleans trails Tampa Bay by two games and has fallen to third place behind the 7-3-1 Falcons.
The Bucs host Atlanta in two weeks, and depending on the outcome of Sunday's games they could clinch the division title with back-to-back victories.
But avenging their loss to New Orleans is foremost on the minds of the Bucs, who other than the names on their uniforms won't look much like the team that lost in Week 1.
"What are they, two behind? We can put them in a very, very precarious position," Sapp said. "You can put some dirt on that hole. You can put a little dirt on that coffin if we get them this week. But they won't be sealed."