© St. Petersburg Times, published January 19, 2003
TAMPA -- The thing about reputations is that they don't need to be true, they just need to be.
What else could explain why the Bucs, who finished the season with the NFL's best defense, are considered vulnerable to the run.
What else could explain why the Bucs, who allowed 97.1 yards per game on the ground, fifth in the league, are believed to be easy victims to power running teams.
With today's NFC Championship Game against an Eagles team that churned out 2,220 yards on the ground, the issue became a real annoyance at One Buc Place last week.
"Of course you feel slighted; you have to feel that way," middle linebacker Shelton Quarles said. "We don't feel like we're a soft defense. We don't feel like we're a defense that is not physical or that we're a finesse defense. Once someone's said that about you and your team, you have to take offense to it. But that doesn't matter. As long as we can win, we can be as soft was we can be, I don't care."
Here are some observations and the team's rebuttal explanations.
OBSERVATION: In all four losses this season, once to Philadelphia, twice to the Saints and once to Pittsburgh, the Bucs defensive front, a one-gap unit built for speed, lost ground to bigger, more physical offensive lines.
EXPLANATION: Those offensive lines were considered among the best in the league, with the Steelers and the Eagles making the playoffs and the Saints narrowly missing.
"I think that those teams had very, very good offensive lines, period," Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said. "I don't buy into that (they dominated the Bucs) at all. They play very physical games, but that's good football. In fact, that's great football. We've got to take it right to the edge, too. I admire good, physical, strong offensive line players. It's got to bring out the best in us."
Added defensive tackle/end Ellis Wyms: "There are a lot of teams that try to line up and do that. A lot of teams have thought that's the way to come at the Bucs defense this year, and we've proven them wrong. So they can line up and say they're going to (try to dominate us), but everybody has tried that and everybody has been turned back.
OBSERVATION: With defensive ends Simeon Rice and Greg Spires and defensive tackle Chartric Darby weighing 265, 265 and 270 pounds, respectively, three-fourths of the Bucs front four is about 30 pounds lighter than most offensive linemen. The same can be said for Quarles, who said he weighs about 222 pounds, about 18 to 20 pounds lighter than most middle linebackers.
EXPLANATION: The Bucs feel that in their scheme, in which players must shoot into a gap rather than battle an opponent face-to-face, speed and agility are more important than mass. They also don't buy into the theory that their players get overmatched late in games.
"It's not correct to say that," Marinelli said. "The thing that's interesting is that you can't say we're undersized. I will say we're short, but we're thick down low. Usually, to play our system, you don't need a lot of size. When there is a breakdown it's usually that we've played the gap wrong or we've missed the assignment. It's about being disciplined and sharp. Size is not the issue."
Quarles said in the Bucs scheme, his size was not a factor in giving up those yards.
"We just got out of our gaps a few times, and any time you get out of your gaps against a good running team, that's what's going to happen," he said. "They'll exploit you. Some of the run reads we may have had this year, we got out of our gaps and didn't do what we were supposed to do."
OBSERVATION: In the losses to the Saints and Eagles, opposing running backs were able to average over 100 yards, a lot of it running downhill. In two games, the Saints' Deuce McAllister had 208 yards on 58 carries with one touchdown, and Philadelphia's Duce Staley had 152 yards on 24 carries.
EXPLANATION: McAllister had to work extremely hard for every yard he gained against the Bucs and was productive against all teams this season, finishing with 1,388 yards on 325 carries. As for Staley, consider when he got his yards.
"Look at it like this: McAllister, in the first game, averaged 3.1 yards per carry," said defensive tackle Anthony McFarland, who finished the season on injured reserve with a broken foot. "And Duce Staley may have gotten 152 yards, but got 67 yards on the last two plays in the game and they didn't factor. Come on now. Be real."
Wyms said some credit has to be given to the two running backs, both of whom finished with over 1,000 yards.
"When you're playing against great backs, sometimes they're going to get their runs," Wyms said. "It's not like either of them just ran up and down the field on us, through our defense. They had to fight for the 100 yards they got. No one's going to run up and down the field on us for 200 yards. We're not that kind of defense."
Darby, a second-year player who moved into McFarland's starting position, said the line takes offense to the suggestion that it can't handle power running teams and pointed out that the 49ers, who also ran for over 2,000 yards this season, gained 62 against the Bucs last Sunday.
"Week in, week out, everyone says we can't stop the run if they come straight downhill, whatever," Darby said. "Most definitely, we take it personal.
"I really think that (the Eagles) know they have their hands full. They know we're hungry and we know that they got us the last four times, and it's now our time to step up and do what we do. As long as we play as a team, there's no one in the world that can beat us."