TAMPA - Build a defensive line around a pass-rushing tackle and speed on the edges, emphasize a battering-ram rushing attack to control the clock and keep them rested, then add a heady and steady quarterback who makes a few plays but fewer mistakes.
In a year or two, you will contend for a division title.
Recognize the blueprint? It's Carolina blue.
The Panthers, under defensive-minded coach John Fox, look very much like the Bucs did under Tony Dungy just a few seasons ago.
In fact, even before the injury to Falcons quarterback Mike Vick, Carolina was the chic pick to challenge the Bucs for the NFC South title.
Although they might not be in the same neighborhood as Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, the Panthers' Kris Jenkins and Julius Peppers are at least looking to take up residence there.
Free-agent running back Stephen Davis gives the Panthers an identity on offense. And quarterback Jake Delhomme is the solid, if not spectacular, passer who could be the difference between 8-8 or 10-6.
"This is a very good Carolina team that is much improved offensively," Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. "Stephen Davis, Jake Delhomme, Jordan Gross, they've added Ricky Proehl. They have some really good players in Year 2 of their system, also. We're very respectful of Carolina's offense, and we all know that, from a defensive standpoint, this will be as hard a test as we face all season.
"They have a fired up coach. This team is for real."
3-D: Here's another way the defense can be mentioned in the same breath as the Steel Curtain.
The Bucs will try to become the first team since 1977 to post three straight regular-season shutouts. The Pittsburgh Steelers defeated the Bucs 42-0 and the Oilers 21-0 to end the 1976 season and opened the '77 season 27-0 over the 49ers.
Tampa Bay finished the 2002 regular season with a 15-0 win at Chicago and defeated the Eagles 17-0 Monday night.
"Those are great, but I don't think you really play for shutouts," safety John Lynch said. "You go out to play our style of football. And I think by playing your techniques, by playing hard, those things are a byproduct of that. And even then, it takes some luck. It takes a guy dropping a ball on a fake field goal. It takes something like that. I think so. I think it's darn hard and they're great when you get them.
"We've played better defensive games (than Monday night's) and not had shutouts. A lot of things factor into that."
TINY TIM: Lost in the hubbub of the Bucs' three new starters on defense was the play of nickel back Tim Wansley.
Without the second-year pro from Georgia stepping up, the Bucs never could have contemplated moving Dwight Smith from cornerback to free safety.
"Wansley got to play a lot and he really played well. He's a good football player," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "That was a big key for us in moving Dwight Smith to safety. A lot of that was based on if Wansley or Corey Ivy could replace Dwight at nickel.
"The first time out of the box ... he's a very confident player."
MR. PERFECT: Here's what drives receiver Keenan McCardell after 12 NFL seasons:
"When I walk on that field, I'm chasing a perfect game. Jerry Rice and I had a conversation in Tahoe and he said, "Man, I'm still chasing a perfect game.' I was like, "So am I.'
"That's a game where you make every block, every assignment, you're on it. Every catch, every route, your depth, you make it, nobody really covered you that day. A lot of times, people will have a big day and they look like they're not covered. But the plays not called to you, you're getting open and doing the right things. That's the perfect game. It's hard."