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Saints' Williams poses familiar concern for Bucs

Another big back having a good season is the last thing Tampa Bay needs to see Sunday.

By BRUCE LOWITT, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published December 21, 2001


TAMPA -- Ricky Williams' career is heading downhill fast.

In football, this is a good thing ... unless you play defense.

"He comes downhill as well as anybody we've played," Bucs defensive line coach Rod Marinelli said of Williams, the Saints war horse with a penchant for the straight-ahead, knock-'em-over run. "He's fast and big and strong. He's a load."

Williams has rushed for 1,112 yards, fourth in the league, heading into Raymond James Stadium on Sunday for the Bucs' latest "must-win" game.

"You don't look at stats," Marinelli said. "Numbers are for other people. You've got to go in and play your game. Your skills, how you play your blocks, your hands, your keys, your (shoulder) pad level. It's just simple techniques. That's what our game's all about, execution and details."

Williams, who has sore ribs but probably will start Sunday, could become the fourth running back this season to gain 100 yards against Tampa Bay. The other three did some serious damage: Pittsburgh's Jerome Bettis (143 yards), Green Bay's Ahman Green (169) and, Sunday, Chicago's Anthony Thomas (173). The Bucs lost those games.

Then again, in eight of 13 games the Bucs have held teams to less than 100 yards rushing. Marshall Faulk of the Rams, 106 yards shy of his seventh 1,000-yard season, was held to 55 rushing yards by the Bucs four weeks ago. The next Sunday, Tampa Bay limited Cincinnati's Corey Dillon (1,010 yards this season) to 79.

"They're all good runners," defensive tackle Steve White said. "It's not really so much what they're doing as much as what we're doing. We've gotten out of whack against some good backs, and it hurts when you do that. Missing gaps, missing tackles, stuff like that. Those type of guys make you pay for it. ...

"Gang tackling, that's the key. We need to get everybody to the ball at their maximum speed with their maximum ability."

Williams' style is not much different than that of the Bucs' Mike Alstott. Handed the ball, his first instinct is to plow straight ahead. "He's a tackle-breaker," safety John Lynch said of Williams, "so you have to be physical right back. As always, with our run defense, we've got to be in our gaps. And once you're there you've got to tackle well."

When the teams last met, Dec. 7, 1999, in the Louisiana Superdome, Lynch led a Bucs defense that held Williams to 41 yards on 14 carries, a 2.9-yard average. The Bucs won 31-16. That came one week after Williams set a club record with 179 rushing yards.

"He's come a long way as a player since then," Lynch said. "A guy like this, sometimes he's going to make some people miss or bounce off him. A guy like that, it takes more than one guy to bring him down. So it takes getting a lot of guys to the ball, which is something we do well."

To linebackers coach Joe Barry, it doesn't matter who the Bucs are playing and who is running the ball.

"That's not to take anything away from Ricky," he said. "He's a great back -- first-round draft pick, franchise player, all that stuff. But we try not to get all caught up in that. It's No. 34 and we've got to tackle him when he carries the ball. That's the bottom line."

Barry caught the second half of the Rams' 34-21 victory Monday night over the Saints. It was fun to watch, he said, and not just because the outcome dropped New Orleans' record to 7-6, the same as Tampa Bay's.

"I really enjoyed it," he said, "just because there are some similarities in what we do on defense and, obviously what the Rams do."

Stopping the run always is the Bucs' first priority. It is easy, White said, for the quarterback to take the snap, turn around, hand the ball to a running back and let him punch out 3 or 4 yards at a clip. "We can't let the Saints do that. Our focus has to be stopping the run. Then we'll work on stopping the pass."

That, of course, presents another major challenge.

Aaron Brooks is third in the league in passing with 3,338 yards, behind only the Rams' Kurt Warner and the Colts' Peyton Manning, and ahead of Brett Favre of the Packers. Brooks' primary receiver is Joe Horn, with 1,153 yards, and Willie Jackson has 876.

"Ricky's a big-time player," Lynch said, "but they've got other big-time players. That's what you face week in and week out in this league."

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