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In their hour of need, Buccaneers fall flat

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- That was ridiculous.

Ronde Barber deserves a big slap of blame for not making a simple recovery after the Bucs blocked a Detroit punt. Should've been an easy touchdown. That's a TD, initials with which Tampa Bay has become painfully unfamiliar. Getting a safety doesn't compare. When it might've been a 20-point runaway, the home bunch had achieved a paltry 8-nil.

They would pay an ugly price.

Maybe, there goes the season.

There were, one more time, unsatisfactory numbers by Tampa Bay's offense. It's now zero touchdowns for seven quarters. Les Steckel, the Bucs coordinator, isn't getting results. His guys could well be called Les Miserables.

But there was extensive guilt elsewhere, including with a renowned Tampa Bay defense that had loads of smash but eventually too much give. Detroit quarterback Charlie Batch was battered, sacked seven times, including a franchise record four by the rather uncelebrated Marcus Jones, but again the Bucs proved rotten at the art of strangulation.

Batch hit back-to-back slant passes to set up a go-ahead touchdown. Cornerback Donnie Abraham couldn't cope. When jam-ups in the heart of Tampa Bay's line were a critical need, the Bucs too frequently parted like the Red Sea.

Or is it Dead Sea?

In their 25 seasons, the Bucs had never faced a bigger load of competitive heat than Thursday night. It became a super sweat, then a meltdown, even in the October cool.

In sports, "pressure" is a nonsensically overstated term, but it raged against the Lions. Pangs of pain far worse than in 1976-77, when Tampa Bay's original NFL players muddled to 26 consecutive defeats.

Going against Detroit, need was unquestionably more acute than in January 2000, when the Bucs met St. Louis for the NFC championship. If there was to be a serious Tampa Bay stab at Super Bowl XXXV, it needed to begin against Lions, who were slaughtered 31-10 by the Bucs in September. What has gone wrong?

Count the ways.

This is a talented, experienced Tampa Bay team that dazzled in September before flip-flopping into October's outrageous NFL flops. After the gleeful dynamics of a W-W-W start, the Bucs have gone L-L-L-L.

Four on the floor.

Oh, sure, the Bucs of a year ago had a 3-4 beginning, then rallied beautifully to go 11-5, eventually pushing within a Missouri step of the Super Bowl. To lean on that now, well, it's depending on a quite splintered, akin-to-hopeless crutch.

This season, at 3-4, the Bucs are in a hotter, nastier, deeper hole. All but eliminated from the NFC Central race, trailing unbeaten Minnesota by a mile and now even the Lions by 4 furlongs or so. We just about cease calling Bucs defending division champs.

Near-dead, on a mountain of need.

Early against the Lions, the Bucs were cocked to dominate. Detroit almost backpedaled off the cliff. Opportunities were created but Les Miserables could manage just two field goals. Then, from Tampa Bay's special teams, there came a grand chance to snap a big shackle on the Lions.

During an evening when Martin Gramatica would kick four field goals, including a 55-yard monster to make it 14-all, the Bucs blocked two attempted kicks. Nate Webster blanketed the first on a punt, sending the football dancing backward toward the goal. Tampa Bay led 6-0. There was a touchdown there for the simple grabbing.

Watch the trap door!

Barber, instead of aggressively and adeptly pursuing the bouncing ball, chose to nonchalant it. Like it would automatically hop into his pocket. Eventually mutilating the chance. Detroit players finally arrived in the area. They were allowed to hold their losses to a safety. Trailing just 8-0 when it should've been at least 13-0, maybe even 20-0 later on.

Tampa Bay would pay.

As vigorously as they played, the Bucs were again point poor, except for Gramatica's kicks. Batch was taking a beating from Tampa Bay's front four, but the Lions were indefatigable and opportunistic. They did create a march, but on third and long Batch scrambled and threw a pass that should've been the most elementary of interceptions.

Tampa Bay defensive back Brian Kelly, emulating Barber's failure of hands, muffed the Batch throw that hit him squarely in the chest. You felt need surging again.

It would be the Bucs who got smothered. Detroit turned a budding loss of significant proportions into a stunning win. Beyond devastating for the Ray J gents, who're now quite vulnerable even in their own playpen. Remember the Jets?

Bucs are now beyond need.

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