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Defense slams the door on 49ers

The Bucs are stingy (228 yards alowed) and aggressive (five turnovers). ''Whenever a team cannot get big plays on us, we're a tough team to beat,'' Derrick Brooks says.

By KRISTEN LEIGH PORTER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 13, 2003


TAMPA -- By holding San Francisco to two field goals in its 31-6 victory Sunday, the Tampa Bay defense made history.

The Bucs caused five turnovers, the most in a game in postseason franchise history. The best was three turnovers, last accomplished in the 1999 NFC Championship.

The 49ers also were limited to 228 total yards.

"We let them settle for field goals and we put big points up on offense and played together as a team," said defensive end Simeon Rice, who had three tackles and a sack. "I think that is moreover what we will remember from this. When you have guys stepping up and playing off of one another, you're going to have a good defense."

Cornerback Ronde Barber had an interception and four tackles despite speculation that the Bucs secondary would have trouble covering the 49ers' taller receivers. But Barber said match-up problems always exist, and they never seem to matter.

"We're a damn good secondary and a damn good defense," Barber said. "It doesn't matter about anybody's size or anything."

The 5-foot-10 Barber proved that with a fourth-quarter interception of a pass intended for 6-3 Pro Bowl receiver Terrell Owens. Barber's 80-yard touchdown return was nullified by a face-mask penalty.

Not only was it Barber's first postseason interception, it also was the third of the game, tied for the most in postseason club history. The last time the Bucs had three interceptions was in the NFC Championship against the Rams on Jan. 23, 2000.

In the first play of the second half, 5-10 cornerback Dwight Smith intercepted a pass intended for Owens and returned it 6 yards. Smith also recovered a fumbled kickoff forced by Corey Ivy in the second quarter.

Barber tipped another Garcia pass late in the second quarter and Derrick Brooks picked it off.

"Whenever a team cannot get big plays on us, we're a tough team to beat defensively," said Brooks, who had a fumble recovery in the third quarter after Rice sacked Garcia at the Tampa Bay 35.

The Bucs could counter San Francisco's no-huddle offense because their defense is conditioned and played with a lot of energy, defensive tackle Warren Sapp said.

The Bucs also had a good game plan against 6-1 Garcia.

Tampa Bay kept Garcia, who was 22-for-41 for 193 yards, out of rhythm.

"I think a combination of rush, disciplined rushing lanes and good pursuit by them and staying with our guys downfield," Brooks said. "He's a guy that scrambles to throw the ball and us having previous experiences playing against scrambling quarterbacks helped us."

Coach Jon Gruden said Garcia did not look for his star receiver more because the defense knew where Owens would be. Owens, who averaged 13 yards a reception and had 100 catches and 13 touchdowns this season, had four catches for 35 yards Sunday.

The Bucs rushed Garcia, making it hard for some of his seven-step drops to develop, Gruden said.

"We forced Jeff to move quickly and get the ball out of throwing position," Gruden said. "We did rotate to him a couple times, and we had some really good re-routes, which was key going into this game.

"When you play zone on that side, you have to get good re-route on the line of scrimmage and good quality distribution over the top, and I thought we did that."

Though Tampa Bay led the entire game, Brooks said the defense knew a lead was not safe against San Francisco or in the playoffs, period.

In their playoff win against the Giants on Jan. 5, the 49ers came back from a 24-point deficit.

Garcia said the difference between playing the Giants and the Bucs is that Tampa Bay's defense is stronger.

"Especially with a good defense like them (the Bucs), you really start to play into their hands because they know exactly what you're going to do," Garcia said. "Now, they can just pin their ears back and rush hard with four and drop seven and make you try to find open windows with a good pass rush and a solid linebacking corps and defensive backfield."

Sapp said games boil down to which team makes the most mistakes.

"When you give up five turnovers it's tough for you to beat a good ballclub and that's what (San Francisco) did," said Sapp, who contributed a sack.

Thanks largely to the defense, Tampa Bay faces Philadelphia in the NFC Championship.

Rice said a group that considers itself the league's No. 1 defense and worthy of the accolades is looking forward to it.

"As a team-wise and unit-wise defensively, we want this," Rice said. "If you don't want this, then you don't want to consider yourself the best."

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