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Defensive challenge

Pressuring quarterbacks is the primary goal up and down the Tampa Bay line - and it shows.

By ROGER MILLS

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 13, 2000


TAMPA -- The search for Bucs defensive heroes in Sunday's 20-15 win over the Packers takes you to opposing sides of the locker room and opposing sides of the universe.

On one end is All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a charismatic and outspoken force whose sack of Packers quarterback Brett Favre in the third quarter swayed the game in the Bucs' favor.

On the other end is understated and soft-spoken reserve linebacker Al Singleton, whose tackle of running back Ahman Green led to a fumble recovery by Chidi Ahanotu and a game-sealing 51-yard field goal by Martin Gramatica.

The ringmaster and the recluse.

"We have been harping on turning things around by making big plays, like taking Favre out of the game," Ahanotu said. "No one wants to get hurt, but that was a big play, (as was) recovering the fumble. The defensive effort was consistent with what we have been doing ... to make us win."

There are some statistical considerations: The Bucs defense didn't allow the Packers into the end zone, held them to 97 yards on the ground and forced the two quarterbacks into 20 incompletions.

But, in reality, there were two big plays.

With the Packers marching inside the Bucs 20, Sapp chased down Favre on third and long and dropped the three-time MVP for a 5-yard loss, forcing Green Bay to settle for a 42-yard field goal.

The loss was bigger for the Packers. Favre sprained his left foot and didn't return.

"Whenever you take a starting quarterback out of a ballgame, your chances of winning will go up," Sapp said. "You don't want people to get injured in this game, but that's part of the ballgame."

It should come as no surprise that Sapp was the one to undo Favre's hopes of an upset. His respectful rivalry with Favre is legendary, and Sunday he wrote a new chapter for the inevitable book.

"We've always had a saying that it starts up front; and if it starts up front, then it starts with me, and I've got to be ready to go," Sapp said. "I looked at my teammates tonight and said, "If I don't play well, I can't come to work and look you guys in the eye (today).' It's something in me. I know this ballclub looks to me for a lot of the plays to be made, and I'm going to be out there and see if I can get it done. I've got 10 other guys who are playing effectively around me, and that's making my job a lot easier."

Although the Bucs defensive line, which entered the game with an NFL-best 41 sacks, was able to get the quarterbacks only once, its relentless pressure kept the Bucs afloat when the offense sputtered.

"Their front four is the best pressure unit in all of football," Packers coach Mike Sherman said. "They applied pressure on us with their line, and we couldn't execute."

And when the front four wasn't chasing Favre and backup Matt Hasselbeck around the backfield, a linebacker was finishing the job downfield.

With the Packers trailing 17-15 but beginning a drive, the Bucs needed a turnover. So, on a Green Bay first down at its 35, Singleton had a golden opportunity to sack Hasselbeck. He missed. Instead of hanging his head, he pursued the play, tackling Green after a short reception and forcing a fumble.

"Al had the sack, but he made a tremendous play to come back and force the fumble," defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. "You like to see the hustle, and Al never stopped hustling and made a huge play to help us get the ball back."

Singleton's effort midway through the fourth quarter was a sign, perhaps, that the Bucs' failure to close out a game in the fourth quarter is past.

"You have to look at guys like Derrick Brooks and Warren Sapp when you come back to the huddle," Singleton said. "If I make a bad play, I have to come back and make something happen."

Coach Tony Dungy added: "Al comes in, misses a sack, keeps hustling and causes a fumble. It was that type of game when things didn't go always as planned, but you've got to keep playing hard."

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