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Bucs covered primary concern

The secondary kept the Rams' speedy wide receivers in check for the whole game, and played perfectly (almost) on the play that beat them.

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By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 24, 2000


ST. LOUIS -- They knew.

The Bucs' defensive players remained mum whenever they were asked about their chances of shutting down the Rams' vaunted passing attack, but they knew the NFC Championship Game could turn into a low-scoring affair.

Even though Rams quarterback Kurt Warner had thrown 46 touchdown passes through 16 regular-season games and one playoff game, and even though Marshall Faulk and Isaac Bruce had 1,000-yard receiving seasons, the Bucs' defensive backs knew they could lock up the so-called Warner Brothers.

"We felt confident," secondary coach Herm Edwards said. "We felt they would move the ball some, but our deal going into the game was at the half, be in the football game and I think we did.

"Our players take a lot of pride in challenges and obviously this was our biggest challenge. They played like warriors today."

The challenge was underscored by comments made by St. Louis players leading up to the game. The Rams were boasting, and daring the Bucs to play man defense against their speedy receivers. The experts argued the Bucs would be shocked by how fast the Rams receivers would come off the line.

Through it all, players like safety John Lynch quietly nodded. They didn't respond with outlandish statements or guarantees, they just assured anyone who would listen that the defense would show up and play its best.

"We played like we expected to play," Lynch said. "I don't think they felt like they could be stopped. I don't think anyone felt like they could be stopped. But we did, within.

"For the most part, we kept that to ourselves. That's how we choose to approach it week in and week out."

Schematically, there was nothing unique about the Bucs' approach. The team mixed its standard cover-2 zone with the occasional blitz with the goal of keeping the Rams receivers in front of them and making sure tackles.

The Bucs also wanted to hurry Warner and force him to make his second and third checks instead of throwing to the intended receiver.

"It was the same thing we do every week," cornerback Ronde Barber said. "We didn't have to do anything unbelievable today. We just had to play our game."

For 55 minutes and 16 seconds, the Bucs played the perfect game against St. Louis. The perfect effort was countered by the perfect play by the Rams, a 30-yard toss from Warner to receiver Ricky Proehl that was defended perfectly.

Cornerback Brian Kelly was covering Proehl as he raced down the left side toward the end zone. Kelly was in position and had Proehl pinned close to the sideline.

"He thought he had pinned enough to the boundary where the guy was going to catch it out of bounds," Edwards said.

The Bucs were blitzing with linebacker Derrick Brooks and free safety Damien Robinson, so Warner had to make the throw under duress.

If the throw had sailed an inch or two more to the outside of Proehl's shoulder, the ball would have gone out of bounds. If it sails the other way, Lynch probably comes over from his safety positon and breaks up the pass.

"I thought I had good coverage, but it was just a great throw and catch," Kelly said.

"I have to give those guys credit."

The disappointment for Kelly was moments after he had made a leaping interception of a Warner pass at the Bucs 43 that he returned 15 yards to the St. Louis 42-yard line.

But the Tampa Bay offense failed to convert the turnover into points and enhance the 6-5 lead. Minutes later, Kelly became the victim.

"It's just part of the game," Kelly said. "We come out here and we pride ourselves on playing 60 minutes.

"Late in the game, their (defense) made a great play and the offense capitalized on it."

Players were quick to rally behind Kelly.

"Brian was right there and had tremendous coverage," Lynch said. "Don't forget, Brian made a tremendous play to give us the ball in striking distance.

"Brian Kelly played a tremendous game and everybody on the defense went right over to him and said, "Don't you dare hang your head because you shouldn't be anything but proud about the way you played.' "

Said Barber: "We've got a lot to be proud of. We played our butts off and left our hearts out on the field."

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