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Sack happy

A regular rotation on the Bucs defensive front fosters teamwork, and big plays.

By RICK STROUD

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 17, 2000


PONTIAC, Mich. -- Chidi Ahanotu has not tackled a quarterback and he is the one feeling pocket pressure. The owner of Sacks Seafood Grill and House of Jazz does not own a sack this season, meaning he has contributed a couple Benjamins toward the Bucs defensive line pool.

To qualify for the payroll deduction, you must participate in at least 20 plays without registering a takedown of the guy under center.

photo
[Times photo: Joseph Garnett Jr.]
Steve White, left, and Tyoka Jackson each have a sack for the Bucs from their positions as backup defensive linemen.
"If you don't get a sack in 20 plays, you're $100 in," defensive lineman Tyoka Jackson said. "At the end of the year, we'll have a party. And if we do what we think we can do, we'll have reason to celebrate."

If the defensive line keeps playing the way it did against New England and Chicago, it may have to find other ways to finance fun.

As a team, the Bucs are on pace to nearly double the club sack record after recording 11 through two games. Cornerback Ronde Barber leads the team with 31/2, but that's primarily because opponents have not handled the blitz when they were overmatched by the Bucs' four down defensive linemen.

Make that seven.

It's the rotation of Jackson, defensive end Steve White and defensive tackle James Cannida that has kept the starters fresh while wreaking serious havoc of their own.

In fact, Jackson and White have produced sacks at key moments off the bench and Cannida has played well enough to make the release of starter Brad Culpepper possible.

"I don't know if they would start other places, but I know we wouldn't be where we are without them," coach Tony Dungy said. "Part of our success is just being able to play hard and go hard. So we're playing guys 45 plays rather than 60 plays and we're getting a maximum effort from everybody. The offensive linemen are playing 60 plays against us and we should be better. But you've got to have good players to play. If you put someone in and it drops off, it doesn't do you any good. They've been critical and we've been fortunate to have them."

For replacement killers, the Bucs reserve defensive linemen are more productive than what you'll find in the NFL. A year ago, White was good enough to win the starting right tackle spot instead of former first-round pick Regan Upshaw, who eventually was dealt to Jacksonville. He made nearly every big play in the post-season. He had two sacks and forced a critical fumble to set up the game-winning touchdown against Washington in the NFC divisional playoff game. The next week, he tipped a Kurt Warner pass on the first play from scrimmage and intercepted it against the Rams in the NFC Championship Game.

Despite that kind of production, White couldn't hold on to his starting job and was replaced by Marcus Jones, who posted seven sacks off the bench a year ago and is off to a fast start with two this season.

Jackson, who pressured Drew Bledsoe into an errant pass on the final drive in New England and sacked the Bears' Cade McNown last week, started 12 games in 1998 after Ahanotu was lost with a shoulder injury.

"You can have depth. Everyone can have depth," defensive tackle Warren Sapp said. "But to have quality depth, to where you're not falling off from an All-Pro player to a guy that's barely hanging on in this league, that's different. They know their roles and that's the best thing about them. They know exactly what we're asking them to do, which is to go in and rush all they've got.

"It allows you a luxury that you just can't find every day. Now, instead of going into the fourth quarter with your head down sucking air, we go in and rush until our heart blows up. Then when we're tired, we call these guys in and that's how we live around here."

Not only are the linemen intelligent and able to exchange information about blocking schemes, but they are unselfish. With the Patriots sustaining a long drive for a potential winning touchdown, Sapp called a stunt to free Jackson, who drove into Bledsoe on third down and forced an incompletion.

"When Ty came in the game, I made the call, he came around and got pressure on Bledsoe and we won the game," Sapp said. "That's just how we work, it was his turn to make a play and he was ready to make it.

"It's like last week. I come out of the game in the fourth quarter and he comes in and gets a sack. It's like here's your reward."

Chemistry has a lot to do with the success up front, according to Jackson. Coached by Rod Marinelli, perhaps the best developer of young defensive line talent in the NFL, it is one of the most tight-knit units on the team.

"I think it's finally working the way they've always wanted it to work," Jackson said. "It really wears an offensive football team down. I think we saw that against Chicago.

"It's going to take all of us for 16 weeks. One of us is going to be a starter some time this season and we're getting valuable experience for when that day comes."

Unless they fail to rack up sacks. The everything goes to pot.

"We don't even think we're as good as we can be yet," Cannida said. "We still think if we get into the groove of things playing seven guys, if we improve it might be scary how good this line can be."

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