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Storm defense is feeling pressure

Tampa Bay hopes to return to its stingy style as it begins post-season play today.

By JOHN C. COTEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published July 29, 2000


TAMPA -- In recent years, the Storm defense has been like cops enforcing a speed limit: no one goes over 55.

Points, that is.

In recent weeks, however, the scofflaws have run amok. The defense is not only bending, it is breaking. In its regular-season finale, the Storm scored 72 points ... and almost lost. Only a missed field goal at the buzzer preserved a victory and kept Carolina to 69.

"Unacceptable," said linebacker Andre Bowden, shaking his head after practice Thursday. "That is just not going to do it."

Not if "doing it" involves winning a playoff game or two. The Storm opens the post-season at 4 p.m. today at the Ice Palace against Milwaukee, one of those teams that broke the 55 barrier (three weeks ago in a 62-52 win).

The number of points allowed in the past three weeks -- 165, and that includes the 31 allowed against Nashville in a win -- is the most the Storm has allowed in a three-game stretch. The previous mark of 160 came in the disappointing 7-5 season of 1994.

Considering the success the defense has had, the 165, especially to close out a season, is troubling. Including an earlier loss to Iowa, the Storm has given up 60 or more points three times this season, the same number of times it has done so in the previous five years combined. It's almost enough to make fans forget the Storm scored 70 points or more three times in the season's second half.

"We went from first in the league in points allowed to fourth in three weeks," coach Tim Marcum said. "I wish I had the answer. We're not getting pressure on the quarterback, and then again, we're not covering very well back there, either. So what came first? The chicken or the egg?"

Marcum said this isn't one of the Storm's better defensive backfields, so the onus has been placed on the pass rush, traditionally a strength. And when it has been able to pressure quarterbacks, the team has been successful. In its five wins before the Carolina game, the Storm allowed an average of 35 points a game because of the defensive line's rejuvenated play.

But when the pass rush isn't there ...

"That's what is going to decide this game," Marcum said. "We have to have the pass rush."

Without an experienced group of defensive backs, the Storm's inability to rush has been magnified. In the past, the Storm could survive a game or two without it. This year, that buffer doesn't exist.

"You can't get away with that anymore," said Bowden, who has two sacks. "I can't pinpoint what's going on, and I don't want to point any fingers. But I do know that when we get some pressure on the quarterback, it's been a different ballgame."

Darion Conner, who had 33 sacks in the NFL and has 3.5 this year, agrees. He said he was disappointed with the play of the defense recently but thinks the group, with NFL veterans such as Torry Epps and Pig Goff, will find a higher gear now that it's do-or-die.

"We know we can't go in and play like (we did against Carolina)," Conner said. "Whatever we've been doing, it's got to change. We know the defensive backs are young, so we're going to throw everything at Milwaukee up front."

The last Milwaukee game was a microcosm of what can go wrong for the Storm: Quarterback Kevin McDougal was not sacked, and the Mustangs completed all the key passes down the stretch.

But if the Storm can point to a positive, it's this: Marcum is as adept as any coach when it comes to adapting to his team's shortcomings. If that means more zones, so be it. And if it means shuffling the line, he will. In the Marcum era, opponents have never scored more than 36 points in the five games after his team allowed 60.

"We're going to come out there Saturday and do the job," Bowden said. "We have to keep the quarterback out of his rhythm, get around his feet, stop him from getting that second look. Plus, we feel we owe (Milwaukee) a little something after last time."

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