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Defense returns to dominant form

Tampa Bay isn't sack-happy but numbers (4 INTs, 218 yards allowed) still work in its favor.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 30, 2002


CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- In recent weeks, Tampa Bay's deafening defense had been silenced a bit. Not that its outspoken players ever would say that.

Shutting out Chicago on Sunday was just another day on the job, defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.

"We got the Abominable Snowman off our back, so to speak," said Sapp, who contributed a team-high seven tackles. "The one they said we couldn't get we got the best possible fashion we could get it, a shutout."

The talk of the league was drowned out by Pittsburgh in a 17-7 loss Dec. 23, as the Steelers rang up six sacks and an interception. The Bucs had two sacks and no interceptions.

"That's how we'd been playing the last couple games, we've been playing well but not good enough," Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks said.

After coming in with two interceptions in December, the Bucs had twice that many against Chicago. The Bears were held to 85 yards rushing and 133 passing.

Sunday's performance proved the defense has not lost its swagger, Brooks said.

"We never lost it, to be honest," he said. "We thought we played okay but didn't win the ballgame (against Pittsburgh). We were able to end the year on a shutout and have some momentum heading into the Super Bowl tournament."

Near the end of the first half, Brooks intercepted a pass intended for Bears receiver Marty Booker and returned it 44 yards. It was Brooks' fifth interception of the season.

"We went into this game knowing we were going to have to get some turnovers in order to win this ballgame," Brooks said.

Brooks was not the only Buc who picked off a pass from Bears quarterback Henry Buriss. Cornerback Brian Kelly had two interceptions in the fourth quarter and Dwight Smith had one, also in the fourth.

Defensive end Ellis Wyms had Tampa Bay's lone sack.

The Bucs are 5-2 against rookie quarterbacks and continued that success against the inexperienced Buriss. In his second NFL season, Buriss made his first start and threw for 78 yards on 19 attempts.

Bears coach Dick Jauron said the Bucs have a very talented team.

"They have a tremendous defense," Jauron said. "We just needed to get a break somewhere."

The Bucs showed why Brooks, Sapp, John Lynch and Simeon Rice all are Pro Bowl picks off the NFL's No. 1 defense.

In three career games against the Bears, Rice has three sacks. Though he did not have one Sunday, he was pleased with the overall performance.

"We played dominant," Rice said. "We won 15-0 and kept 'em off the board. That's the dominant fashion that shows the direction this team's going in."

It was the Bucs' second shutout of the season. They won 25-0 against the Baltimore Ravens in the second game of the season.

In that game, Brooks had a 97-yard interception return for a touchdown.

The win over the Ravens was the first shutout since the Bucs beat the Bears 41-0 on Sept. 11, 2000.

Sunday was the first time since 1979 the Bucs ended the season with the No. 1 defense and the first time they had two shutouts in a season.

Winning the last game of a 12-4 regular season means Tampa Bay will end on a high note, Sapp said.

"The table was set for us," Sapp said. "All we had to do was sit down and eat. This is a greedy ballclub once you put something right in front of us.

"We ate everything on the table and got a bye, and now, we can just rest up and heal and put ourselves in a good position to make this championship run."

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