The Bucs' third-best defense against the run last season has slipped to 13th this season.
By RICK STROUD
© St. Petersburg Times, published October 26, 2000
TAMPA -- There is no substitute for experience. But when your middle linebacker position is inexperienced, there are plenty of substitutions.
That explains why the Bucs are solving their riddle in the middle of the defense by multiple choice.
On any given series, first-year starter Jamie Duncan could be replaced by rookie Nate Webster, who might be replaced by Shelton Quarles.
"I wouldn't prescribe it, but you've got to go with what works for this team, and we do a lot of substituting," Duncan said. "I think the only two guys who don't come out of the game are Derrick Brooks and John Lynch. You've got to go with what works."
Or rather, you have to fix what is not working.
The Bucs defense, which was ranked third in the NFL last season against the run, has slipped to 13th, yielding an average of 107 rushing yards.
In three consecutive defeats, opponents have reached the century rushing mark.
That is not a good trend when facing the NFL's top-ranked rushing offense Sunday in the Minnesota Vikings and explosive tailback Robert Smith.
After losing 13-year veteran Hardy Nickerson to Jacksonville in free agency, the Bucs thought Duncan was ready to be the run stopper at middle linebacker while Quarles would replace him in passing situations.
But Duncan and the defense have been inconsistent, and Webster's upside has prompted coaches to get the Miami rookie more playing time.
"I think my play is kind of indicative of how this team has gone," Duncan said. "Good but just not quite there, just not quite getting it done. I mean, when you lose four in a row, you question what you need to do. ...
"It's a guy here, a gap there. That's why I think everybody is focused on doing your responsibility. All the breakouts are making our stats look bad like we haven't been playing the run as well. I think we've been playing it pretty good, but the expectations for this group is great. I think that's why you're hearing a lot of guys say take care of your responsibility. Don't be the guy."
Duncan hasn't always been the guy, but he did lose his gap on the 34-yard run by the Lions' James Stewart last week.
Giving up long runs is what has hurt the Bucs during their four-game losing streak. It began with a 26-yarder by the Jets' Curtis Martin. Continued with the 50-yard run for a touchdown by the Redskins' Stephen Davis. And included a 27-yard touchdown run by Vikings quarterback Daunte Culpepper.
"I know our running stats don't look very good right now," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "We just had some big runs break out on us and make it look like we're not playing the run very well. But if you look at the overall thing, it's not necessarily true. Stephen Davis breaks one. Stewart breaks that one for more than 30 yards. Stewart is under 100 yards for the game, but that knocks it totally out of whack."
Lynch said that while any defense will allow a big running play now and then, the secondary has to make tackles and prevent game-breakers.
"That is what happens," Lynch said. "And I think we talk so much about a one-gap scheme, but coupled with that is, if somebody misses a gap, we can't let it turn into a 30-yard run. It can be a 10-yard run. The secondary has to come up and make a play."
Kiffin said the Bucs will continue to use Duncan and Webster at middle linebacker and expect both players to get better with experience.
"I think Jamie's done okay. Jamie had started six games and Hardy started 13 years," Kiffin said. "You can't put that on Jamie. Things happen, but in the same sense, we're not disappointed in Jamie. You can't keep everybody. Something's got to give and other players have to step up. ... We're just trying to play them both," Kiffin said. "I don't think anyone has established themselves as an incumbent starter."
Among reasons the Bucs defense has not been as dominant this season is the fact that the offense has turned the ball over 13 times in the past four games and forced the defense to play too many plays -- 75 against the Lions.
But Lynch still believes the Bucs' trademark should be an ability to slam the door in the fourth quarter -- no matter which players are on the field.
"The fact of the matter is the last four games, we've either been tied or ahead in the fourth quarter," Lynch said. "The way we've always looked upon things is, when we're given that opportunity, we've taken it upon ourselves to bring those games in. We haven't done that; that's the bottom line.
"When you're struggling like we are now, when you have a chance to make a play to change the course of a game, you have to make it. That's not calling anyone out; but when you have an opportunity to make a play, you have to make it."
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