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Bucs defenders could gloat, but they won't

Despite ranking first or second in five statistical categories, the unit thinks it could be better.

By ERNEST HOOPER

© St. Petersburg Times, published September 18, 2000


PONTIAC, Mich. -- The Bucs defense has allowed only two touchdowns in three games. The unit has produced 18 sacks, four interceptions and five fumble recoveries. It entered Sunday's game ranked first or second in five statistical categories.

But after Tampa Bay dominated the Lions' offense in a 31-10 victory, linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said the unit still hasn't played its best game.

"It's going to be a game where we're going to have to come out and tackle better, get more turnovers," Brooks said after his defense limited Detroit to 17 yards rushing, 13 first downs and a 2-of-12 third-down conversion rate.

"The thing about this defense is, we're never satisfied. We're always finding ways to get better. I'm quite sure when Coach Kiffin is finished dissecting this film, we're going to see an area where we should have played better in this ballgame that the other team might try to pick up and expose."

Coaches always set the bar high for their players, but the Bucs defense would have to borrow some tips from a pole vaulter to meet the standard required by coaches. After some stellar efforts at the end of the 1999 season, Tampa Bay appears to be playing even better, allowing 228.7 yards a game, 38.8 yards fewer than the average it allowed in 1999.

The only touchdowns allowed by the unit were a 39-yard catch by New England's Terry Glenn in Week 1 and Sunday's fluky 50-yard catch by Detroit's Germane Crowell on a desperation play at the end of the first half. Both plays are aberrations, blips on a screen, but Kiffin could not quantify the defense's performance without mentioning Crowell's catch.

Free safety Damien Robinson appeared to be in perfect position to break up the pass. Lions quarterback Charlie Batch lofted the ball down the left sideline, and if Robinson had attacked the pass at its highest point, it would have been incomplete. Instead, he waited for the ball to fall into his arms and Crowell jumped in front of him to snare the ball in the end zone.

Of course, the catch only narrowed Detroit's deficit to 21-10, and the Bucs had to know if they maintained their play, the Lions weren't likely to score on a conventional drive. Still, head coach Tony Dungy was visibly upset and Robinson was dealing with self-inflicted regret.

"I was like, "Yeah, this is a freebie,' and then out of nowhere, Crowell comes out and catches the ball. I think I relaxed a little bit," Robinson said. "I was tougher on myself than my teammates. We have such large expectations. The guys were like, I can't believe we gave up a touchdown right at the end because we had a shutout going."

The Bucs didn't get one, but they did shut Detroit down in the second half. The Lions gained 75 yards after intermission. Batch was sacked four times and forced into two interceptions. Detroit's last three drives ended in turnovers.

"I can't remember a two-game stretch where we played as fast and as physical as we played these past two games," said cornerback Ronde Barber, who led the assault in last week's 41-0 whitewashing of Chicago. "Guys are making big plays all over the place. We're playing hard, we have a goal in mind and everybody is on top of it right now."

Each week, the coaching staff finds new ways to challenge the unit. Kiffin said the mandate this week was to remember how the season started in '99. The defense limited the Giants, Eagles and Broncos to less than 200 yards of total offense, but then the Vikings racked up 364 in the fourth game.

"We reminded them last year that ... we went to the Vikings and laid a big fat egg," Kiffin said. "So we guarded against that today.

"We're on the road, it's not the opening game of the season, it's not the home opener. Are we going to get up? Are we going to be ready? You have got to get up every Sunday in this league. When they teed it up and rang the bell, our guys were ready today."

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