Goal of the defense: to make sure no other team this season gets to watch film of it futilely chasing the Eagles QB.
By DARRELL FRY
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 28, 2000
TAMPA -- It was funny, really. Tyoka Jackson didn't mean to be disrespectful, but he couldn't help but laugh at all those big, lumbering defensive linemen trying to chase fleet-footed Eagles quarterback Donovan McNabb.
"Watching film, it's kind of funny to watch those linemen try to chase him down," Jackson said. "He's outrunning linemen and linebackers, and juking DBs. It's really something to watch on film."
What won't be funny to Jackson is if the Eagles' next playoff opponent is laughing while watching film of the Bucs fruitlessly trying to get their paws on McNabb during Sunday's NFC wild-card game at Veterans Stadium.
The Eagles have an upgraded offensive line that figures to give the Bucs' pass rushers, some of whom are nursing injuries, more problems than they have ever had against Philadelphia.
"I think they are a little bit better than they were last year," Jackson said, referring to the Bucs' 19-5 win at the Vet in Week 2 of last season. "They're not the best we've played, but they're certainly not the worst."
The Bucs won last season partly because of the defensive line's ability to circumvent the Eagles offensive line. The Bucs harassed McNabb most of the game, registering nine sacks, one shy of the team record.
Warren Sapp and Chidi Ahanotu had three apiece, Marcus Jones two and Brad Culpepper the other. That kind of constant pressure throttled Philadelphia's offense, which mustered 151 total yards.
The Eagles gave up 49 sacks last season, not the most in the league, but an alarming number for a club with a mobile quarterback.
Team management, determined to beef up protection for McNabb, landed arguably the most sought-after free-agent tackle of the off-season, Jon Runyan (6 feet 7, 330 pounds). Paired with left tackle Tra Thomas (6-7, 349 pounds), they form the largest tackle combo in the league.
"(Thomas) is playing as good as any tackle in the National Football League," Eagles coach Andy Reid said.
Runyan is one of three new starters on Philadelphia's offensive line. Bubba Miller, a five-year veteran, is at center, and John Welbourn, who started last year's regular-season opener as a rookie but suffered a season-ending knee injury in it, is back at left guard opposite Jermane Mayberry.
"They seem like they are running pretty much the same things they ran last year," Bucs defensive end Steve White said. "They are just being better at it."
It helps that this Eagles unit has been together all season. The five starters played in all 16 regular-season games, one of four units (the Colts, Saints and Jets are the others) with that consistency.
The unit has allowed 45 sacks, four fewer than a season ago, but just two in Sunday's regular-season finale against Cincinnati, a 16-7 win.
But with arguably the best running quarterback in the league (McNabb leads the Eagles -- and all NFL quarterbacks -- in rushing with 629 yards), Philadelphia's offensive line doesn't need to be great, just good.
"We can't just rush recklessly," White said. "You have to rush with a purpose and also try to contain him at the same time. We (faced) some quarterbacks who are mobile, guys like Daunte Culpepper, Brett Favre, (Cade) McNown up at Chicago, and we've kind of done a good job with them. So hopefully, we can do that again on Sunday."
Complicating matters for the Bucs is the health of two key defensive linemen, Jones (left foot sprain) and White (hip pointer). White is expected to play but may not be 100 percent. Jones wore a protective boot Tuesday and may not practice much, coach Tony Dungy said.
The Bucs have capable reserves such as Jackson who have played regularly throughout the season. But if Jones can't go, the Bucs lose one of their best pass rushers.
Jackson said the magnitude of the game will make the defensive line forget some of its pain by Sunday.
"Don't be surprised when we trot it out on Sunday that those guys that are listed as probable or possible are playing," Jackson said. "This is the time of year that we've all been waiting for, that we played and worked so hard for in the off-season to get to this point. And here we are. I don't think too many guys are going to be sitting down."