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Bucs eager to shore up their porous run defense
After giving up 306 yards rushing to Atlanta, players make stuffing Carolina the top priority.
By DAVE SCHEIBER
Published September 22, 2006
TAMPA — One statistic tells a big part of the story in the Bucs’ woeful start.
A year ago, their league-leading defense allowed opposing rushers to gain 100 yards or more just twice the entire season.
Two games into 2006, the unit has yielded two 100-yard efforts.
Both, of course, came Sunday in the 14-3 loss to Atlanta when tailback Warrick Dunn amassed 134 yards and quarterback Michael Vick added 127 to power the Falcons’ 306-yard, college-option rushing attack.
Now, stopping the run is Priority 1 for the Bucs defense heading into Sunday’s home game with the Panthers, a showdown in which each team unexpectedly finds itself up against the NFC South wall at 0-2.
“We knew last week was somewhat of an anomaly because the type of plays we were getting from Michael Vick,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “But we still didn’t contain Warrick, and this is a pretty good running football team, with DeShaun (Foster) and the rookie (DeAngelo Williams), who looks great in the couple of films that I’ve seen him on. It’ll be our challenge to get back to what we do best, and that’s stop the run.”
But it wasn’t just last weekend that the defense looked surprisingly vulnerable. In the Bucs’ 27-0 loss to Baltimore, the Ravens ran with ease on the tone-setting opening drive, as Jamal Lewis carried six times for 35 yards, including his 4-yard touchdown. Tampa Bay’s defense has been playing catchup ever since.
Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme, however, expects nothing but the old, hard-nosed Bucs defense Sunday.
“I mean, watching the two games, besides all the preseason and what we did last year, it’s still the same defense to me,” Delhomme said this week in a conference call. “It was kind of hard watching the film, thinking we’re going to be able to run the option like Atlanta did. They have a very good player at quarterback over there who can just run and make things happen.”
But the task won’t be an easy one against the Carolina offense, which not only has two strong running backs but a dangerous passing game, too.
“They’ve got Steve Smith over there, Keyshawn (Johnson) over there,” Bucs coach Jon Gruden said. ''They have the threat with a former Pro Bowl quarterback in Delhomme over there to hurt you. So they have a versatile attack, and with that comes a pretty good mixture, a pretty good balance in their offensive scheme. We understand that, we respect that.”
Whether they can stop Carolina may depend on how the money players, who have not matched past standards so far, perform Sunday.
Defensive end Simeon Rice, still sackless, says he intends to make a statement, despite being listed as questionable with a knee injury.
“This is a game for myself that I can come out and shine,” said Rice, who hasn’t missed a game because of injury in his 11 seasons. “That’s what I’m interested in, and that’s the route I’m taking. … We put some things on tape that we’re not necessarily proud of, but it’s on there, it’s history, and now it’s time to put good things on tape.”
What specific improvement might Rice make?
“We have to definitely stop the running game. What you saw last week was a one-of-a-kind situation and scenario — and you probably won’t see it until we play them again,” he said. “This game coming up is more conventional, something that we can definitely close.”
And the game could hinge on how the veterans respond.
“We’ve got a lot of veteran guys, and we know what it takes to turn the season around,” cornerback Juran Bolden said. “We know what it takes to step up and make plays. So I would expect anybody who’s established, or someone who’s trying to establish themselves, to step up and make some plays. Including myself.”
“The thing is that everybody’s working hard, everybody’s competing,” safety Jermaine Phillips said. “It’s not like it’s a lack of effort. The things that we can correct are the things that we’re doing out there. It’s just mental mistakes here and there that we can’t have. This defense has thrived on the little things. The little things are what make you great, and that’s what we’ve got to get back to.”
For stalwarts on the defense such as Barber — who has been hit with pass interference calls leading to touchdowns in both games — that means playing up to personal standards.
“You’ve got to live up to what you’ve set in the past,” he said. “We’ve made a mission of it to be the best in the league every year. We’re a ways off from that now, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t still prove ourselves worthy at the end of the year, and we’re going to continue to work toward that this week.”