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Wall of fame

On paper, the collection of talent along the Bucs' defensive front appears overwhelming. The players involved are intent on making good on that promise.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times,
published August 5, 2001


TAMPA -- Quarterbacks in the NFL beware.

If you are playing the Buccaneers this season, have your head on a swivel, your chiropractor on speed dial and perhaps your personal affairs in order.

Tampa Bay's defensive line, which helped set a club record with 55 sacks a year ago, seems vastly improved.

Warren Sapp is 30 pounds leaner. Anthony McFarland is meaner. Marcus Jones is no longer an in-betweener, having made a successful transition from tackle to defensive end two years ago.

As if that weren't enough to make offensive coordinators count ceiling tiles the night before a game, the Bucs have added a fourth former No. 1 draft pick.

Free-agent defensive end Simeon Rice, who has averaged better than 10 sacks for five pro seasons, will line up next to Sapp, so those who prepare blocking schemes can pick their poison.

"Take two premier guys and put them together," Rice said. "That's like Magic and Michael playing on the same team together."

The other two guys are no slouches. Jones had 13 sacks a year ago, which would've tied Lee Roy Selmon's single-season club record had Sapp not pole vaulted it with 161/2. McFarland, who played with a partially detached triceps muscle the second half, may be better than Sapp was at the same stage of his career.

"Oh, my God, he's special," Sapp says of McFarland. "He beats me off the ball sometimes, now."

According to Rice, it will be a free-for-all among the All-Four-1's in their weekly race to the quarterback. For quarterbacks, this is unfair. This is trying to sweep back the tide with a broom. This is setting four dieting Dobermans loose on a porterhouse.

Quarterback Brad Johnson, who faced Tampa Bay's defensive line without Rice while with the Redskins and Vikings, said his most recent encounters with the Bucs defense were no fun.

"They were the two toughest games I've played. I took a lot of hits," Johnson said. "They make you earn your way.

"What's unique is that a lot of times, teams have to bring eight guys in the box. And with these guys, they can sit back in soft coverages. They're able to rush the four guys and get as much pressure on you as if safeties were being brought up in the box to blitz you. They run a lot of stunts and games, they're very tenacious and they're always coming after you on every play."

On paper, coach Tony Dungy says, the defensive line has a chance to rival the one he had at Minnesota with Chris Doleman, Al Noga, Keith Millard and Henry Thomas. That unit was so deep that All-Pro John Randle came off the bench.

"You had five guys who could really rush, with different styles," Dungy said. "They were very smart players and worked well together. These guys have the same attributes. They just haven't done it together on the field."

Rice believes the Bucs can aspire to being the best defensive front in football -- mentioned with the likes of the Steel Curtain, Fearsome Foursome or Purple People Eaters.

"To be the best ever. We have that rare opportunity," Rice said. "It's a rare chance just me being here. But prior to this happening, nobody thought this was possible, even myself."

Adding Rice to an already imposing defensive line was unthinkable -- even to the Bucs -- when the off-season began. But the salary cap limited Rice's options, forcing him to structure a contract that would be affordable for Tampa Bay.

Rice also is more suited for the one-gap scheme deployed by the Bucs. A gifted athlete who was invited to play basketball this summer by his Airness, Michael Jordan, Rice can line up on the outside shoulder of the left tackle rather than directly in front of him as he did in Arizona's two-gap scheme.

"It's like drinking muddy water and going to spring water. The taste is better," Rice said.

Rice's presence means tackles won't be able to cheat down and get a shove on Sapp before blocking the defensive end.

"That's what I want to know. Who are you going to pick? Who are you going to double?" Sapp asked. "That's a dilemma we've got to force. And in our room, if you get a one-on-one, you've got to win. Cut and dry. There's no almost or pressure. You've got to win."

Dungy believes teams will attempt to do what they always have -- double Sapp, try to stay ahead and run the football.

"They'll try to wear us down," he said. "But if we get ahead of people and put them in a game where they have to be one-dimensional and throw, especially down here when it's noisy, I wouldn't see anybody blocking us very well."

Jones might benefit the most from the addition of Rice. Most teams probably will slide their protection to that side, leaving him one-on-one with what is traditionally the less athletic tackle on the field.

"I think about what it means," Jones said. "It's not just that it's scary. But you know Simeon can rush. You see him in the past five years with 50 sacks. You know Warren Sapp is going to be out there rushing his butt off. Booger McFarland may be one of the fastest defensive linemen we've got because he did beat Sapp in the 40-yard dash. So with all that vibe, I have to say to myself, "What can I bring to the table?' I'm one of the stronger guys on the line. I'm just going to be aware of where the sacks are going to be. Instead of always trying to go up the field, my sack may be a matter of just making an inside move. So I'm going to have to play off them."

Since most quarterbacks are right-handed, they will be flushed to the left side of the Bucs line, where Jones will be salivating.

"Because he's on the side where that quarterback wants to go," Sapp said. "And we got him out there, and that big guy is going to push the pocket and close it down for him. The only way out is through the backdoor and for him to go backwards and get out on us? Nope. He can't outrun us. That's what we're going to do. Try to force the quarterback out the backdoor. And if he goes out the backdoor, we've got him."

Our story is nearly finished and we haven't even mentioned talent on the bench in Steve White and James Cannida. Or that the group is taught by Rod Marinelli, one of the top defensive line coaches in football.

But the Bucs defensive line knows it has to bring more than resumes on Sunday. May we suggest some extra smelling salts?

"You can have one of the best defenses to ever play on the planet," Jones said. "But if you don't win a championship, I don't think you'll be remembered much."

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