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Role players keep engine humming

Complementary Bucs are as crucial as stars in effort to beat Raiders.

By ROGER MILLS, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2003

SAN DIEGO -- This is how Bucs safety Dexter Jackson sees his role.

He imagines a Mercedes-Benz slicing across the interstate. He pictures one of the world's sleekest, most efficient, most respected vehicles. Its symbol is universal, its price high, its reputation unscathed.

But inside the Benz, Jackson said, there are unseen mechanisms such as brake pads, sparkplugs, pistons and drive shafts. Critical parts that can't afford to go wrong.

"Everybody can't be in the limelight," Jackson said. "Some people are made for the limelight, some people are not. Some people are role players, some people are not. Think of the Benz. Everybody sees the shiny outside, the shiny rims, the plush leather, the stereos, all that stuff. But no one sees inside the engine.

"No one sees that there's a fan belt in there that does the dirty work. Well, I consider myself that fan belt. (The Benz) can't run without the fan belt. But the guys know that the inside parts of the engine are just as important."

The Bucs defense has no shortage of shiny parts. Linebacker Derrick Brooks, strong safety John Lynch, defensive end Simeon Rice and defensive tackle Warren Sapp, all Pro Bowlers, give the defense a collective sparkle.

Same with cornerbacks Ronde Barber, who had an outstanding season and was named second-team All Pro, and Brian Kelly, the league leader with eight interceptions.

But against the Raiders on Sunday, the Bucs are going to need more from those you know less about. More from Jackson. More from defensive end Greg Spires. More from middle linebacker Shelton Quarles.

"Because the Raiders play out of so many different passing lanes and options, you have to be on your guard as the free safety," Jackson said. "A lot of people overlook that I can cover a receiver, and if you go back and watch all of our film, a lot of times I'm covering the third and fourth receiver and breaking up passes and not letting guys get off."

The Super Bowl routinely has made heroes out of mortal men. It once parlayed Cowboys cornerback Larry Brown's two interceptions and a touchdown into a million-dollar contract with the Raiders the following offseason. Brown did not fulfill the Raiders' hopes.

What happens to Jackson and Quarles, both of whom become free agents at the end of the season, after the game can't be predicted. But their impact on its outcome can't be overstated.

The Raiders enter with the No. 1 offense in the league and the league MVP in quarterback Rich Gannon. The passing game is devastating and Jackson's range and ability to tackle in the open field will be influential.

In his fourth season out of Florida State, Jackson has acclimated to the cover 2 scheme and provided the Bucs with the comfort that he can make plays.

"I'm more involved than I was last year," Jackson said. "I was always deep, deep, deep, and knowing the type of player I am, I want to be involved. When the ball comes my way, I have the ability to make a play. I want to make plays and I have to realize that you can't force the issue because you'll get beat.

"Coach (Jon Gruden) recently asked me what was the difference, and I told him it was getting involved. There were times last year when I felt like I wasn't part of the team. When you're more involved you feel like you're a part of what's going on."

It has been very good for Quarles most of the season. In his first season as the starting middle linebacker, Quarles gave the Bucs their best play in the middle since the early years of Hardy Nickerson.

He finished with a career-high 159 tackles, 11 fewer than team leader Brooks. And as part of his responsibility in the cover 2 defense, Quarles routinely covered tight ends and receivers scampering down the middle. Against an Oakland offense that isn't afraid to get the ball to the first open man, Quarles' range will be crucial.

"We've been plugging away at that all year," Quarles said. "I thought I didn't play as well as I could have at the start of the season because I missed a couple games in the preseason with injuries. But I knew that in order for us to get anywhere, I would have to pick it up as the middle linebacker. Both myself and Nate (Webster), I thought we had great years as far as making plays and making the plays we had to make when we had to make them. I think we did that for the most part.

"The biggest thing for me is to get everybody in the right place. One of the things Christians think about is being a servant leader. You can be a leader by serving. It shows other people where they need to go, and so I try to do the best I can by getting everyone to line up correctly."

As he became more acclimated, Spires began to flourish. The past two weeks against the 49ers and Eagles, Spires, who plays on the left side, was particularly effective keeping quarterbacks Jeff Garcia and Donovan McNabb in the pocket.

Though Gannon might be an old-fashioned gunslinger, his legs still have some get up and go, particularly running to his right.

"I got out there and just tried to do what they were expecting of me," said Spires, who doesn't see himself as an unsung hero. "I've played a lot more than I have played in the past and I'm getting more opportunities, and it all comes down to the coaches having faith in me and trusting me out there and going out and executing the game plan."

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