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Futility Lines

Opponents are running right at the Bucs' vaunted front four instead of away from them.

RICK STROUD
Published December 7, 2003

His voice is soothing and soulful, his conviction runs as deep as the ocean and his message is one of hope, not despair.

Rod Marinelli may be the assistant head coach and the practice field his pulpit, but he swears this is the gospel when it comes to the ills afflicting the Bucs' defensive line.

"We've been up, then (down), then (up)," Marinelli said, motioning his hands like a roller coaster. "So we've just got to come back and keep working one snap at a time, one rush at a time.

"It sounds exactly the same as I say all the time, but that's what it is. It's like if your car runs out of gas, put gas in it. It's that simple, but that hard. If you're chopping wood and your ax is dull, sharpen it.

"You just teach your craft over and over. Because eventually, that becomes stronger than anything outside, stronger than any other influences."

Remember the Bucs' fearsome foursome of Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Anthony McFarland and Greg Spires? Eleven months ago, they were collectively considered among the best of all-time.

They smothered the run, trampled pass protection and danced over fallen quarterbacks.

But this season, they are the front line of a defense that has allowed five 100-yard rushers. And after setting an NFL record of 69 consecutive games with at least one sack, they have not put a quarterback on his back in two of their past three games.

That may not sound significant until you consider that the Bucs are 4-0 this season when they have three sacks or more and 1-7 when they have two or fewer.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're playing like s--- every week," said Spires, an MVP candidate in the Super Bowl and sackless in '03. "It's a group effort, it's a team effort and as a team, we're not getting it done. I'm not going to go out and say, "Well, the defensive line is the reason we're losing.' It's the team. It's everybody. It's me. It's everybody.

"We haven't had as many sacks or pressures. But that's not the main reason why we're losing, why we're five and whatever. I just think as a team, man, we haven't gotten the job done."

Spires is right. The Bucs defensive line has had some bright moments. Rice leads the NFL with 12 sacks. Sapp is on what's become a normal pace for him the past three seasons with five sacks, two shy of breaking the franchise career mark held by Lee Roy Selmon. McFarland, who signed a $34-million contract extension in March, has one sack but his other numbers are nearly identical to years past. Even Spires, despite the sack goose egg, isn't far from his '03 totals.

So why does the front four - which consists of three first-round picks - appear so feeble? Why did Sapp feel compelled to tell his radio show audience last week that he played one of the worst games of his career at Jacksonville? Why did Rice, who otherwise is having an standout season, say, "I'm as shocked as anybody."

It's because teams don't play to the strength of the defensive line. It is built for speed and quickness, not power. So opponents are lining up frequently in two tight end sets, sometimes using an extra offensive lineman, and running inside - not outside where the Bucs' speed can be an asset.

"They're going to try to find a way to be successful," McFarland said. "Usually, it's a copycat way of doing it. Everybody finds out who did it first, and I think Carolina (in Game 2) is the week we opened up a bag. They ran the football a little bit and everybody else was trying to figure out, "How can we run the football? We're not even worried about throwing the ball against you.' When you're trying to stop the run 80 percent of the time, you're not even worried about the premier looks you're getting."

The Bucs have lost six games in which they had the lead or were tied in the fourth quarter. But two-minute drills can be exhausting to a defense, particularly one that has been on the field too long. What's more, only one defeat has been by more than seven points, so the Bucs rarely get to tee off on a quarterback.

"But that's no excuse," McFarland said. "We still get looks. They may not be ideal looks, but you still get looks."

Finally, injuries to the secondary have cut into the production of Rice, Sapp, McFarland and Spires. Good coverage by the secondary and the ability to pressure the passer are woven together like a braid.

But it's difficult for coach Jon Gruden to find fault with a team tied for the league lead in allowing the fewest points per game, and ranking fifth overall.

"The defense, statistically, still ranks in the upper echelons of football," Gruden said. "Maybe the flash plays haven't been as abundant or as easy to find as they have been in the past. Teams have played us a little bit differently. A lot of teams are coming out with two tight ends, an extra offensive lineman and not playing a wide-open style. When that happens sometimes, and you're not playing with a lead, when a team is in a catch-up mode and throwing all the time, it's a team game."

Marinelli, meanwhile, isn't through preaching.

"They have tremendous pride," he said. "I'm expecting to get better. I'm expecting great improvement, great attitude, great hustle and excitement being a professional football player on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. I couldn't think of anything better to do. I can't think of a better way to enjoy my life."

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