By ERNEST HOOPER
© St. Petersburg Times, published December 31, 2000
When Hugh Douglas lines up against the Bucs today, he will be called upon to take his 6-foot-2, 280-pound frame and successfully challenge offensive linemen who weigh 30 or 40 pounds more.
He will be counted on to chase down a running back who weighs 100 pounds less. Most of all, he will be expected to continue the torrid pass rushing pace that has led to 15 regular-season sacks.
Does he think he will be up for the task?
"I'm determined," Douglas said this week. "There's a lot of fight in this dog. We have a pretty good defense and I think we're going to do pretty well. We're going to come to play."
Douglas' dogged determination is fueled by missing a year of football. Last season, a knee injury and a torn biceps reduced his 1999 campaign to just four games. Healing required long hours of rehabilitation, but only returning to the field could stop the mental pain Douglas endured on the sideline.
"It wasn't tough coming back," Douglas said. "It was waiting around while going through the rehab. I hated missing a whole season of football. That's why I came back and rededicated myself."
Douglas' six-year career had been peppered with nagging injuries before '99, so he took a greater interest in health. A nutritionist had him add red meat to his diet, and he worked in Atlanta, his off-season home, with Ravens tight end Shannon Sharpe. The off-season result was a bulkier body that had added about 20 pounds of muscle.
The regular-season result was playing in all 16 games, a career-first. And Douglas just wasn't on the field to make cameo appearances. He recorded 15 sacks, the most by a defensive end this season. And he had at least one sack in 11 of the Eagles' games.
Douglas' play has been a catalyst for the entire Philadelphia defense. In 1999, the Eagles had only 221/2 sacks. This year, they had 50, with Douglas, Mike Mamula (5.5) and Brandon Whiting (3.5) swooping in from the end positions and tackles Paul Grasmanis (3.5), Hollis Thomas (4.0) and rookie Corey Simon (9.5) collapsing the pocket in the middle.
"I always wanted to get Hugh and Mike Mamula on the field at the same time when they were healthy," Eagles coach Andy Reid said. "I thought that would be a tough combination to work against from an offensive standpoint, and we were able to do that this year and I think it helped Hugh in his production. That's not taking anything away from Brandon Whiting, he was probably in there more than any of them, Hugh included. Hugh's done a tremendous job and that helps your defense.
"Hugh's got a great energy about him and that helps the defense too."
Off the field and in the locker room, Douglas' energy is manifested by his non-stop chatter. He either playfully teases teammates or raves about his collection of cars. Since he joined the NFL, Douglas has purchased numerous cars and owns nine, ranging from a BMW 740 to a Dodge Viper to a Ford 150 pickup truck.
He has paid cash for almost all of them.
"It just comes from being in college and walking all those years," said Douglas, who attended Central State in Wilberforce, Ohio. "You know, asking people for rides all the time and no one wanting to take you to town for groceries."
Now everybody wants to take Douglas to town because of his physical prowess and energetic style. The Eagles feel as if they got Douglas for a steal when they traded a second- and fifth-round pick to the New York Jets in 1998.
Yet as Douglas prepared for his first playoff game this week, he realized his unit has a daunting challenge.
Overall, the Eagles defense finished the regular tied for 10th with the New York Jets. They were seventh against the pass and 20th against the rush, an area they certainly hope to shore up today.
Though the Bucs have the more heralded defense, the Eagles' statistics are nearly identical. In 10 significant defensive categories, Tampa Bay is significantly higher in only two: rushing yards allowed per game (103.0 to 114.4) and forced turnovers (25 to 19). The teams are nearly identical in yards allowed per play (5.2 to 5.1), rushing yards allowed per carry (4.1 to 4.0) and first dows allowed per game (17 to 18).
"We understand that Tampa Bay has what is considered to be the best defense in the National Football League," Reid said. "They take a lot of pride in that and they've played a long time together. They understand the highs and the lows. They've grown up that way. They will come in here ready to play football. It will be a great challenge for our offense to go against the Tampa Bay defense."
If the Bucs have an intangible edge, it's that they have significantly more playoff experience. But Douglas believes his unit can play without the burden of expectations that Tampa Bay has carried all season.
"We're not playing with any pressure," Douglas said. "It's a situation where they were expected to be good, and they were expected to go to the playoffs. They had to play with that all year long.
"All we have to do is go out and play football, just go out and play."