NEW ORLEANS - In two of the past three weeks, the Bucs defensive line was held without a sack and the buzzards began circling.
Pass rushing phenom Simeon Rice was bothered by a sore elbow. Defensive tackle Warren Sapp admitted he had the worst game of his career against the Jaguars. Defensive end Greg Spires had not recorded a sack.
Wasn't this the unit that earlier this season set an NFL record with 69 consecutive games with a sack?
Well, call off the death watch.
On a day when the Bucs desperately needed a win, Tampa Bay's defense came to life and played with the kind of passion that had been its staple in seasons past.
And that pass rush? It looked like the dominant force of last season.
"There was a lot of energy out there today - a lot," defensive end/tackle Ellis Wyms said. "You get to a point when you're tired of your backs being against the wall, tired of getting your butt kicked. You have to come out of the corner fighting. They beat us the past few times we played them. They ran the ball on us pretty good. Everyone expected us to come out here and quit. But we wanted to prove to the world that we're not quitters. It's been a bad season, but we're going to come back and play hard to the end."
Saints quarterback Aaron Brooks will be the first to testify. Though he threw for 238 yards and seemed comfortable in the first half, Brooks had little time and was sacked seven times.
Leading the charge was Rice, who entered the game tied for first in the NFL with 12 sacks. Rice dropped Brooks three times and forced a fumble.
"When I'm not hurt, I think I'm kind of dangerous," said Rice, who played the last two weeks with a sore elbow. "I tried to play with it. In this league, if you're a little off or a little damaged, it shows, especially when you have to use your arms."
Rice now ranks third all-time in sacks for the Bucs with 411/2, passing David Logan.
Spires finally had his first sack of the season that stopped the Saints at the Bucs 9.
"From a unit standpoint, we were alive. There were bodies (flying around) in there," Rice said. "We had guys who really wanted to be in there and do the things that we were supposed to do. Guys were coming in and providing a lot of energy. Chuck (Darby), Ellis, (Anthony) McFarland, Warren, guys played with a lot of energy."
Inadvertently, Sapp may have set the tone Tuesday during his weekly radio show when he criticized his performance the previous week. He responded with effort, and the Bucs followed suit.
"I was self-evaluating," Sapp said. "Look in the mirror first before you look anywhere else. I didn't have a good game last week. I've been doing this for 13 years, all I am is a three-technique (guy). That's all I do."
Defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said the effort up front was a product of hard work.
"When a pencil gets dull, you sharpen it," Marinelli said. "You pay attention to the details, you stay on top of those things. If you're conscious about coming in and evaluating yourself and getting to work, all the words are elevator music. It's not like you need to come out and lay on a sofa and have a therapist talk to you. Men go out and do what they're supposed to do."
And the truth is, for the defensive line to have a special day, the defense as a whole had to focus on one thing: stopping running back Deuce McAllister.
"That was what we wanted to do from the get-go," Sapp said. "It was a challenge issued to us from the jump. Get in the way of him from history. We kind of liked that. We've always risen to every challenge we've ever faced and this was another one we had to rise to. We did a great job, all of us. It takes all 11 guys to get him on the ground."
McAllister, who entered the game with nine consecutive 100-yard efforts, was held to 69 yards on 22 carries.
"We're all part of stopping the run and we're all part of the seven sacks," linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "A couple times, he can't throw because if he does I pick it so he holds it back and there's a sack. A couple of times he tried to throw it at Ronde and had to hold it, and there was another sack. A couple of times we may not have covered a guy well enough and the defensive line saved us, and there was a sack. That's how it goes. All 11 guys on this defense share a part of the win, share a part of the seven sacks."