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Kiffin offers defense conditional praise

By DARRELL FRY, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published January 3, 2003

TAMPA -- The Bucs finished the regular season with the NFL's top-rated defense. On Thursday, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin praised the unit and listed some of its most sparkling achievements this season.

In addition to the outstanding efforts of Pro Bowl players Simeon Rice, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp and John Lynch, Kiffin said the key to the defense's improvement has been the surprising play of safety Dexter Jackson, cornerback Brian Kelly and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles.

"I think the young guys really stepped up," Kiffin said. "Dexter played okay last year, but he really stepped up this year. Then, there's Brian Kelly (who replaced Pro Bowl player Donnie Abraham). And then we let Jamie Duncan go (and replaced him in the middle with Quarles).

"We rolled the dice a little there. I felt real good about these guys, but again, we had to hope that we weren't wrong."

Kiffin quickly warned players those accomplishments will mean little if the defense doesn't play to the same standards in the postseason.

"He let us gloat for about 10 minutes, then it was back to work," Lynch said. "We've earned what we've gotten, and we think we can bring that same game (to the postseason). But unless we do that, (being No. 1) won't mean anything."

TIME OFF: Players are off until Monday when the team will resume preparations for its division playoff game. Coaches and players couldn't overemphasize the importance of having time off to rest and heal nagging injuries.

"That's very important. We've got a lot of players who are wounded who will be able to heal and get prepared for next week," defensive end Chartric Darby said. "We'll come in next week with fresh legs and that's a plus."

Most players said they'll spend the weekend with their families and watch the wild-card games, which will determine the Bucs' opponent. Coaches will be busy preparing for possible opponents (Packers, 49ers or Giants). They have begun studying the Giants, then will focus on the 49ers and Packers.

Kiffin said the opponent doesn't matter.

"I look forward to anybody we play," he said. "It doesn't matter to me."

Kiffin said the biggest advantage of the bye week is only needing to win two games to make the Super Bowl.

"Those two games are hard to win, but the hardest thing is getting the bye because you've got to go through 16 games," Kiffin said. "I can't wait until Monday. Actually, I can't wait until Saturday night to see who we'll play."

Maintaining a focus that coach Jon Gruden emphasized at the start of the season, Kiffin refused to look ahead to a possible trip to the NFC Championship Game or Super Bowl though the bye week puts the Bucs close to both.

"I'm going to try to get this first win first," Kiffin said. "You can't start planning your trip to San Diego and getting your tickets all set up. I'm worried about one game and that's the first-round one we have. Then, we'll go from there."

LITTLE GENERAL: Gruden can't say enough about Lynch. Gruden said Lynch is the quintessential NFL player -- on and off the field.

"He's just a pro football player if there ever was one," Gruden said. "If he has a chance to become a senator or a governor or captain of an airplane or something, he'll do great things. ... I call him Schwarzkopf (after Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf)."

Lynch said he likes the nickname. "It's a great honor," he said. "(Gruden) is having fun with it. At first, he just used it every now and then. Now that's all he calls me."

PINNED DOWN: One of the forgotten keys to winning playoff games is good punting. Gruden said punting almost becomes an offensive weapon in the postseason.

Tom Tupa has had 28 punts downed inside the 20, a move Gruden said could loom large in the playoffs.

"The acquisition of field position is a big part of strategy," Gruden said. "When you've got a guy like Tupa who can directional kick it down inside the 20 and you've got a heck of a defense, it becomes a tool."

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