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[Times photo: Toni L. Sandys]
Warren Sapp taunts the home crowd after he and his defensive teammates forced New England to punt in the fourth quarter.

After changes, defense remains a power, still

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By GARY SHELTON

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 4, 2000


FOXBORO, Mass. -- You were nervous, weren't you? You had doubts, didn't you?

You haven't been paying attention, have you?

This was the safest thing in the world. The New England Patriots had the ball, and the momentum, and the home-field advantage. Big deal. The crowd was snarling, and the chains were moving, and the lead was slipping. So what? Drew Bledsoe had turned into a tough guy, and the crowd was turning nasty, and the game was there for the taking. No sweat.

For all intents, this was practice. This was the palace guard protecting the crown jewels, and all was safe. This was the Bucs defense, as predictable as Columbo solving the case, as dependable as Perry Mason during closing arguments. This was a deodorant ad, and no one was sweating.

This is who they are. Still.

This is what they do. Still.

The world has not changed. Hardy Nickerson is gone. Brad Culpepper is gone. But great defense has not gone. And shame on you if you thought it had. As popular as those players were, as much as they gave, they did not take with them what is special about this team. The defense still lives. The Bucs still win.

There was nothing you had not seen in the domination by the Bucs defense in Tampa Bay's 21-16 victory over New England on Sunday. But there was the comfort of seeing it again.

Perhaps you had it figured differently. The noise lately has been more about who the unit has lost, rather than what it retained. Still, save one pass play Sunday, the defense was as ruthless, as relentless, as merciless as ever. The players snuffed the Patriots' running game, and they hammered on Drew Bledsoe until you thought the referee might stop the fight.

Then, when it came to the crunch, when the game was there to win or lose, the Bucs slammed the window on the fingers of the Patriots. Of the last 27 times the Bucs have led going into the fourth quarter, they have protected the lead 25 times. To be any better in the late going, you have to be the Lone Ranger.

"We love it being on us," said defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who spent so much time in the Patriots backfield he could have been listed at fullback. "That's what we do. We seal the deal. We get one guy to strike a match, and everyone else pours gasoline all over it."

Oh, it got a little dicey at the end. The Patriots took over on the Bucs 45 with two minutes to go. Bledsoe, who had just hit Terry Glenn with a 39-yard touchdown pass, picked up a couple of first downs. But that was it.

This was what drove the Bucs into the playoffs last season, that ability to choke off a comeback. Last season, the Bucs did it against Denver, and Chicago, and Kansas City, and Atlanta. And Minnesota, and Detroit, and Washington. Time after time, someone would make the play. Every week, the Bucs left it up to their defense to provide the victory. Almost every week, it did.

"That's what we live for," defensive end Chidi Ahanotu said. "It's our chance to shine."

Oh, there were questions along the way, outside and in. You take two key pieces off the chessboard, the others don't look quite as formidable. The fans' skepticism was loud. The players were a little more inward.

"It caught us by surprise," safety John Lynch said. "Sure, there were questions. You try to trust the coaches and trust management, but those were two warriors we battled a lot with. There were questions in some of our minds. We're on our way to answering them."

For most of the game, the Bucs seemed to have all the answers. Their defensive line swarmed the Patriots, all but eliminated the New England running game (Patriots backs rushed 11 times for 25 yards, which isn't enough to scare you). They pounded on Bledsoe repeatedly, sacking him six times, knocking him to the ground another 13.

"I let him slip away three or four times," Sapp said. "I've got to figure out a way to get him to the ground."

In the past, that hasn't been a problem. But this was a tougher Bledsoe than the one who has crumpled in the heat of a rush in past games. It didn't matter. Bledsoe hit 13 of 18 in the final quarter for 113 yards, but only his score to Terry Glenn did any damage.

In other words, relax. The Bucs defense is going to be as good as ever.

Now, here's a thought. Maybe, it's going to be better.

That's something to consider, given the Bucs have been third, second and third in the NFL defensive yardage rankings the past three seasons. The Bucs think they can reach higher ground, however.

"We've talked about it," coach Tony Dungy said. "We've made some moves that are going to make us better in the long run. In the past, we've had that one play. Somewhere in the course of a half, something goes haywire."

This time, it was Glenn beating cornerback Donnie Abraham for a touchdown that made for the nervous moments at the end. But when you look at this defense, you figure Abraham is going to be just fine. You figure no one is going to run wild on the Bucs. You have to figure the special teams won't put the defense into the hole it did Sunday.

So, does this end the skepticism?

"No," Sapp grinned. "People will think that Brad would have covered Terry Glenn downfield, or he would have tackled Drew Bledsoe all by himself on that (10-yard first-half) sneak."

Eventually, however, the question marks will be replaced by exclamation points once again. The Bucs are still 11 miles of rough highway for an opponent. They're going to make three touchdowns stand up most of the time.

"We're playing for history," Ahanotu said. "We're going to be special."

Still.

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