tampabay.com

All for 1

The Bucs D is No. 1 in the NFL, including tops vs. the run. One of its newest members knows why and is glad to be part of the philosophy . . .

By RICK STROUD
Published September 25, 2005


On his first trip to Tampa Bay last spring, Chris Hovan listened intently as the Bucs cut to the chase. They wanted the Vikings 2000 No. 1 draft pick only if he would be content playing nose tackle.

Hovan had a free-agent visit planned with another team and the Bucs figured it would be weeks before he would reach a decision. But they had their answer within minutes. He canceled his trip and signed on the spot.

Why would a Pro Bowl player and one-time NFL wild man with black eye paint want to be part of the Bucs' new makeup?

Sitting at his locker with a clean face, crew cut and looking straight as uncooked spaghetti, Hovan grinned before answering.

"It's a privilege to play for this defense," he said. "The who's who is down here. I look to my right, and there's Simeon Rice and Ronde Barber. I look behind me and there's Derrick Brooks.

"It's a different type of football down here, man. Everyone's accountable. I've never been around it before. It's just great waking up every day."

Hovan and the Bucs may have both slumbered through 2004. He fell from grace in Minnesota and was inactive for both Vikings playoff contests.

That was only slightly better than the Bucs, who hadn't sniffed the postseason since winning the Super Bowl in 2002. Though still finishing in the top five in defense overall, Tampa Bay was 13th vs. the run the next season and 19th in 2004.

But with Hovan and under tackle Anthony McFarland plugging the middle, Tampa Bay's defense is No. 1 overall and ranked first against the run, allowing just 40 yards per game.

"He hasn't missed a day of work since he showed up here," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said of Hovan. "He loves football. He's rolled his sleeves up and has gone to work. He didn't do a lot of talking. He's just put it all on tape. He's been quick off the ball and very physical. He's fit right in with everyone else."

Hovan wasn't the only missing piece. McFarland is healthy after missing 17 games in the past three seasons. Defensive tackle Ellis Wyms (shoulder) and strong safety Jermaine Phillips (broken arm) are back from injured reserve. Brooks, the 32-year-old linebacker, and Rice, the 31-year-old defensive end, still are among the best at their positions. And lockdown cornerbacks Barber and Brian Kelly have been joined by free-agent nickel-back Juran Bolden.

Even Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, who rejoined the Bucs late in 2004 after being dumped by the Cardinals, is back in the starting lineup.

Jackson still drives the Cadillac he won in San Diego, and Cadillac Williams is making it a smoother ride for the Bucs defense. The NFL's rushing leader is keeping the defense rested (only 51 snaps vs. the Bills last weekend).

"If they're fresh, if they're feeling good, they are a dangerous handful to deal with," coach Jon Gruden said of his defense.

The Bucs always have been vulnerable to big backs pounding the ball inside against one of the league's smallest defensive lines. This season, they recommitted themselves to stopping the run.

Whereas Chartric Darby (who signed as a free agent with the Seahawks) used to get it done with grit and girth, the 6-foot-2, 296-pound Hovan uses the strength and quickness he developed playing most of his career at under tackle. And coaches love talking about his motor.

"What Hovan is, is a physical one-gap football player who basically has played the under tackle his entire career," Gruden said. "And to put him in there at the nose tackle with McFarland, you have two very active big people who cannot only rush the passer but get off blocks and make plays all over the place. So those two guys have been a key to our run defense. But everybody has bought into the fact that for us to thrive on defense, we have got to shut the run out on first and second down and get the quarterbacks in some third-and-difficult situations."

It has been working because the Bucs also are getting turnovers again. They were a plus-17 in turnover ratio from 2000 to 2002. But the past two seasons it sank to plus-2 and minus-9.

In the season opener at Minnesota, the Bucs forced quarterback Daunte Culpepper to commit five turnovers, including a fumble recovered by Hovan. Against the Bills, they held running back Willis McGahee to 34 rushing yards, dropped two interceptions and failed to scoop a fumble and score.

"It was a good start. But I think this will be the first real power running game we'll look at this week," McFarland said. "Those other guys are good backs, but I think this will be the first real test. When you think of Green Bay over the years, you think of Brett (Favre), but you think Ahman Green, too.

"This will be the first big downhill running game we get."

The Bucs' success on defense doesn't end with the starters. Players such as Wyms, tackle Anthony Bryant and defensive tackle Dewayne White could be a force for any team but have to be content with coming off the bench and wreaking havoc.

"It's unique, man," Hovan said. "You have to come in, you have to bust your a--. It's a tight-knit group, and I'm glad I get to play with these guys because these guys take it as seriously as anything.

"I've never been around a defensive line that's so aware and so accountable for what's going on on the field. They want to be the best."

Whether Hovan, without the flowing blond hair and outrageous eye shadow, gets more recognition is no longer of concern to him.

"I don't care if anybody knows who I am if I get a Super Bowl ring," he said.