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Experts: Bucs D can hold its own

Though some analysts say the Rams are too potent, many believe they can be handled.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 23, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- It is a question the Bucs have heard so much that it has become comical.

Can the Rams be beaten, or is the Bucs' situation hopeless? Can the high-scoring offense be stopped, or is it an attack that's impenetrable?

"Did you say impenetrable? That's too big of a word, I don't know what that means," defensive tackle Warren Sapp deadpanned for the media Friday.

Sapp, like every Buc, concedes the Rams offense is good, but he's not saying it's unstoppable.

"The only one I've known to be untouchable is Eliot Ness, and I think he's gone."

A number of coaches, former coaches and players agree with Sapp. Though the Rams have been the most prolific offense in the league this season, few are ruling out the possibility of the Bucs defense slowing it down.

Contrasting opinions exist because of the contrasting styles. Consider this:

The Bucs defense allowed only one touchdown for every 51 plays, but the Rams offense scored a touchdown every 18 plays. The Bucs allowed one 300-yard passing game all season. The Rams had nine.

The Bucs yielded 11 touchdown passes; Isaac Bruce had 12 for St. Louis.

The Bucs allowed 5.5 yards per pass attempt, tied for first in the NFL. The Rams finished third in the NFL in passing plays of 25 yards or more with 42.

"I know how Tony wants to play it," ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski said of Coach Dungy. "He wants to keep this thing close until the fourth quarter. Teams kind of get caught up in that and play conservatively on offense, thinking they don't need a lot of points to win.

"But I don't think the Rams will be lulled into that. For 17 games, they have put the pedal to the metal. Here's a stat for you: The Rams offense has had 61 touchdown drives and 19 of them have been two minutes or fewer. They don't waste time."

Giants defensive coordinator John Fox knows plenty about the Bucs and Rams. In the season opener his team beat the Bucs 17-13, and in December the Rams beat the Giants 31-10.

But only two of St. Louis' touchdowns came from the offense, and New York trailed only 10-0 at the half.

"Against us, they didn't do much offensively to help their cause," Fox said from the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.. "They were three-and-out on their first three possessions. They were not exceptionally sharp against us.

"At the time we played, they hadn't played a team with a winning record, so maybe that was a factor. We had lost all four of our top corners and had to use backup people.

"They're beatable. They all are."

Foge Fazio knows St. Louis is beatable, but his team couldn't do it. Fazio was the defensive coordinator for the Vikings when they lost 49-37 in last week's divisional playoff game against the Rams. St. Louis' offense scored six of the team's seven touchdowns, and the Vikings have a scheme similar to Tampa Bay's.

Does that mean bad news for the Bucs? Not necessarily.

"I think the Bucs have a great defense," Fazio said. "It seems like I've been watching the same guys on the defense for the last three years. I think they're going to do well against the Rams.

"They're going to get their turnovers. It's just their style of play. The big thing for them is to not give the Rams a short field. If they don't give up a long punt or kickoff, it's going to be a hell of a game."

That's what you hear from a lot of observers. It's not that they think the Bucs defense will be overwhelmed, but they wonder how the Tampa Bay offense and special teams will hold up.

Baltimore coach Brian Billick didn't face the Bucs this season, but he did play the Rams, and he matched up against Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin often when he was Vikings offensive coordinator. Billick favors the Rams.

"They have so much talent, I don't know you're going to be consistently thinking you're going to go in and shut this offense down," Billick told ESPN. "I think the thing with St. Louis is the fact with their defense, which I think is one of the best in the league, (it) is the best team in the NFC because of their balance between offense and defense.

"Clearly, Tony's style of play is to keep the game tight. That's going to be difficult against St. Louis, particularly in the dome with the crowd noise. It's going to be a tough task for Tony. The question is, can they do enough offensively to keep up with St. Louis."

In the final analysis, the outcome may have more to do with how the Bucs perform than what the Rams do.

"It's all about how you prepare," Sapp said. "Our coaches do a great job of preparing for each ballgame and we do a good job of paying close attention to detail and understanding what we have to do.

"As long as we don't allow the guys to spurt or get big plays and they have to earn every yard they get, one of our 11 playmakers is going to get us out of a bad situation. That's how we play."

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