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'Easy stuff' sinks defense

Missed tackles, missed assignments, inability to make third-down stops plague the vaunted unit.

By KEITH NIEBUHR

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 22, 2001


Missed tackles, missed assignments, inability to make third-down stops plague the vaunted unit.

TAMPA -- Cornerback Ronde Barber knows what ails the Bucs' defense.

So do his teammates, which makes the unit's recent struggles all the more difficult to deal with.

"Right now, we're playing hard, but we're just breaking down," Barber said. "And the breakdowns are killing us. It's not like we're having wholesale breakdowns. A guy will miss an assignment or somebody else will miss a tackle. Those things will kill you."

They did Sunday. Again.

In its 17-10 loss to Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay allowed 17 first downs and 344 yards, 220 on the ground. The Steelers were successful on 6 of 10 third downs and converted their only fourth-down try. The Steelers managed 6.3 yards a carry, including a 46-yard touchdown by Jerome Bettis.

"It's just missed assignments," Barber said. "The easy stuff. Stuff we know we can do and stuff we've gone over 100 times."

Two plays involving Bettis summed up the Bucs' day on defense.

On the first, Bettis took a pitch from quarterback Kordell Stewart on third-and-2 from the Tampa Bay 32, headed toward the right sideline and, as defenders rushed, threw a perfect pass to wide open tight end Jerame Tuman for the touchdown and a 7-3 lead with 10:23 left in the first half.

Asked who was responsible for covering Tuman, Bucs coach Tony Dungy said he wasn't sure, but safety John Howell, making his first NFL start for the injured Dexter Jackson, admitted it was his responsibility.

"That's a play we've seen (on film)," Howell said. "The formation, the motion, the flow was everything we practiced during the week. Everyone was getting their keys then all of sudden we're on the field and I've got to (cover for) the guy who has the tight end. I've got to have his back.

"But I'm out there (being) too aggressive and I let the guy get behind me. ... This one is on me. Maybe that's a play Dexter has seen before and doesn't get fooled on it. It's a horrible feeling. It's the worst feeling in the world."

Things would get worse.

With 12:54 left in the third quarter, Bettis took a handoff around right guard, made a cut to the left and outran everybody to the end zone for a 46-yard score and a 14-3 lead. Several Bucs had chances to tackle Bettis on the play, but missed.

"It was a cutback run and I think we overran it," Dungy said. "We can't allow that long touchdown run. Those are the things that are happening to us."

Eight minutes later, the Steelers went ahead 17-3 on a 35-yard Kris Brown field goal after another long Bettis run, this one for 29 yards. Bettis had 118 yards rushing in the second half.

"(Bettis) gave us everything he had," Bucs defensive end Simeon Rice said. "Kudos to him."

The Bucs have allowed four touchdown drives of 80 yards or longer this season, and another six drives of 50 yards or more. Much of that is due to Tampa Bay's lack of success on stopping third downs. Three of the Steelers' third-down conversions came on scoring drives.

"We're not getting the big play when we need to," Dungy said. "When (we) needed to get a third-down stop at the end of the first half, (we) didn't get it. We've got to develop consistency. We've got to get our focus back and get everybody playing well on every play."

Until that happens, it will be a while before the Bucs defense of old makes a return.

"The name of the game is being on top over and over," Lynch said. "You can't do it for a half. Little breakdowns turn into big plays. To be 2-3 right now ... I'm stunned. Great teams, when the opportunity arises, seize the moment. And we haven't done that."

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