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Secondary shines on grandest stage

Forgotten men Dexter Jackson and Dwight Smith come through in the big game with four of the team's five interceptions.

By KEVIN KELLY, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 27, 2003


SAN DIEGO -- Surrounded by an entourage of security officers and cradling the silver trophy with the same loving care afforded to a newborn baby, Dexter Jackson slowed to a shuffle as he approached the stage.

The Bucs cornerback grabbed a fistful of his Super Bowl XXXVII championship T-shirt and gave the MVP award a quick buff to remove his fingerprints.

"M-V-P, huh?" Jackson whispered to himself seconds before a postgame press conference after the Bucs beat the Raiders 48-21.

Bucs strong safety John Lynch is going to the Pro Bowl. Cornerback Brian Kelly intercepted an NFC-high eight passes during the regular season. Cornerback Ronde Barber, a Pro Bowl selection last season, is a star on the field and on the television screen.

But Jackson? A second-year starter in the Bucs' secondary, he can kiss anonymity goodbye after what he pulled against Oakland and quarterback Rich Gannon.

"I think of it like a Cadillac," said Jackson, who intercepted Gannon twice in the first half. "You have the outside -- the shiny car, the luxury rims -- and everybody sees that. But nobody sees the spark plugs and the engines and the stuff that makes the cars run.

"I'm one of the guys that does the dirty work. And doing our dirty work paid off tonight."

Jackson joins a short but distinguished list of defensive players honored as MVP. Chuck Howley, Randy White, Harvey Martin, Richard Dent, Larry Brown and Ray Lewis are the others.

But Jackson's performance was only part of the story.

Facing two likely Hall of Fame receivers -- Jerry Rice and Tim Brown -- and the NFL's Most Valuable Player in Gannon, the secondary did its part on football's grandest stage.

Gannon was intercepted a season-high five times, and Rice and Brown were limited to six catches for 86 yards and one fourth-quarter touchdown. Cornerback Dwight Smith picked off two passes in the second half and returned them 44 and 50 yards for touchdowns.

"Our coaching staff did an unbelievable job preparing us," Lynch said. "I was talking to some of the guys on the sideline; every play that they ran, we ran the exact play from the exact formation in practice."

"It was uncanny the game plan we put together, the preparation our coaching staff did."

The Bucs prevented Gannon, who was intercepted 10 times during the regular season, from settling into a rhythm. They applied pressure. They limited his looks at open receivers. And they blitzed the corners on occasion.

"He's bound to get frustrated a lot," said Jackson, who had three interceptions during the regular season. "When things don't go Gannon's way, he starts pounding the ground, starts (ticking) guys off. He gets frustrated because he wants to execute well.

"We knew once you get in his head, make him get frustrated and start pointing at guys, you can win then."

The two interceptions Smith returned for touchdowns made it the second week Tampa Bay's secondary helped seal a playoff win.

Barber intercepted Philadelphia's Donovan McNabb late in the fourth quarter of the NFC championship game and returned it 92 yards for a score.

"If you are going to throw the ball against our defense, good luck." coach Jon Gruden said. "They are very stingy."

The only blemishes Sunday were a pair of touchdown passes by Gannon, one to receiver Jerry Porter with 2: 14 left in the third and the other to Rice with 6: 06 left in the game.

The secondary led the NFL in pass defense (155.6 yards per game) and intercepted a league-high 31 passes.

"(Oakland) watched film. They knew how good (our defense) was," Jackson said. "You can't take that for granted. But they know now. They know that we're for real."

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