TAMPA — Warren Sapp is wearing sequins. If John Lynch puts anyone else to sleep, it will be using a microphone. The careers of Simeon Rice and Anthony "Booger" McFarland are colder than a penguin's freezer.
But the tradition of the Bucs playing great defense lives on.
This season, Tampa Bay is ranked fourth in the NFL in fewest points allowed (16 per game) and is fifth overall in total defense. The Bucs have allowed just one rushing touchdown, and only one player has rushed for 100 yards or more in a game.
Compared with Tampa Bay's 2002 Super Bowl champion defense, this year's version is better on third downs (32.8-33.6) and limiting time of possession (27:38-28:17).
But the spotlight can miss you when you're in such a big shadow.
"Since I've been down here, it's tough to match what these guys have done," nose tackle Chris Hovan said. "They set the standard. You don't want to be a part of that defense that's not living up to that. Maybe that's the pressure. People compare the '97, '99 and '02 defense, and if you're not mentioned in the same sentence and you're not taking any offense, there's something wrong with you."
Of course, there are several links to the past, starting with defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin, who has had only two defenses finish out of the top 10 (11th in '96 and 17th in '06) since he arrived in 1996.
Linebacker Derrick Brooks, 35, and cornerback Ronde Barber, 33, are the only holdovers from the championship team. The rest of the defense has been rebuilt since roughly 2004.
"I take a lot of pride in the fact there's been a lot of good players before me," middle linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "And I like that. I like that Hardy (Nickerson) played the position before me and played it well. So did Shelton Quarles. There have been a lot of good linebackers. I'm a fan of tradition."
As Sapp dances with the stars and Lynch begins his career in broadcasting today, how will history remember the 2008 version of the Bucs defense? Time will tell. While walking among legends, they are leaving some pretty big footprints of their own.
Brooks, the 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker, occasionally comes off the field in some passing situations. But that has kept him fresh to make more impact plays. He's probably responsible for at least two wins this season.
Brooks had an interception, three passes defensed, two tackles for losses and forced a fumble that was returned 38 yards for a touchdown by Jermaine Phillips against the Packers.
Last week, he covered up a coverage error by Ruud and broke up a pass 30 yards downfield to the Vikings' Adrian Peterson on a critical fourth-and-1 play with the score tied in the second half.
"The one thing that never, ever ceases to surprise me is his preparation," Lions coach Rod Marinelli said of Brooks. "He knew right now who had that coverage, and he turned and went right to that spot. We're sitting here as a defensive staff and went, 'Wow!' We nearly fell off our chairs when we saw it, and that's Derrick. I think the bigger the play, the bigger the time in the game, Derrick shows up. All those guys did."
Barber, the Bucs' career interception leader, does not have a pick this season and has given up some plays in the passing game. But his contributions don't always show on the stat sheet.
His coverage late in the game against Tony Gonzalez forced an offensive pass interference penalty on the Kansas City tight end, enabling the biggest comeback win in club history. "If he doesn't push off, we don't get the ball. They run the clock out," Kiffin said. "That was a huge play."
Last week, Barber's fourth-quarter fumble recovery preserved the win over Minnesota.
"It's a little different than '02 or any of those other defenses because you have a lot of younger guys, players in their first, second or third year," Barber said. "It's a credit to them that they have been able to adapt so quickly and play fast. A lot of young guys don't trust what you're telling them.
"When they look at the old film, they see me, Derrick and Jermaine on that film showing up. They realize the standard, and you don't have to talk about it. It's there to watch."
Youth is served
The defense reloaded two years ago when the Bucs used seven of 10 draft picks on that side of the ball. Now at least five players who start or contribute regularly are 25 or younger — Ruud, 25, defensive end Gaines Adams, 25, safety Sabby Piscitelli, 25, safety Tanard Jackson, 23, and rookie cornerback Aqib Talib, 22.
"In the late '90s and early 2000s, that corps of players played together," Kiffin said. "We didn't really have free agents. There was Quarles, there was Brooks, there was Al Singleton. There was the front four. There was (Brian Kelly) and Ronde. The only thing we didn't know sometimes was who was going to be our nickel corner. But there was a stretch of four or five years where it was really the same group.
"With the draft starting two years ago, it's become a different defense, a different mix of players. Barrett is a young player, and he's starting to get into his leadership role because he learned from Shelton. I just can't say enough about the tradition being passed on. It's a tradition even with the coaches. You go back to when Joe Barry had to replace Lovie Smith. He'd better know what he's doing. Because he's following a heck of a coach. It's just passed on and on from players and coaches, so the standard is set pretty high."
No young player has matched that standard better than Ruud, who leads the team with 104 tackles, two interceptions and three sacks this season.
"For some reason, I wish he'd get more national respect as one of the up-and-coming stars in the league," coach Jon Gruden said. "I just don't feel like people know about him like they do some of the other middle linebackers in the league. … He's a great player. I hope he gets to go to the Pro Bowls and gets the accolades that goes with great players week in and week out. … He's a key to our team."
The good, the bad
Where the Bucs haven't met the standard as a defense is in the pass rush. Tampa Bay is tied for 14th in the NFL with 20 sacks — five coming last week against the Vikings. Adams, a first-round pick in '07, leads the team with four.
"We want more from them because we think they're capable of delivering that," Gruden said. "More turnovers, more touchdowns, more pass rush — more of everything."
So Kiffin has used more blitzes and more man coverage. But he is playing to his strength — big, athletic guys like Adams and Talib who can run, hit and cover.
"We've probably blitzed a little more," Kiffin said. "I think some of it has to do with the players, and some of it, you just need do something different sometimes. You can never just stay the same. Offenses are too good, so are the coordinators and the quarterbacks. Every year, you have to look at things you're going to do next year."
Kelly, who is suffering through the Lions' 0-10 start, believes this Bucs defense could measure up with the great ones of the past.
"Every year is a different year, and I think that was one of the things when we were down there in Tampa, everybody wanted to compare it to the '99 year when we went to the NFC championship," Kelly said. "Was this defense as good as that one? Then we went to the Super Bowl. In years after that, they would ask is this defense as good as the Super Bowl team?
"Those guys are playing great. Guys are still making plays, still getting good rush, still playing the base of what the Tampa defense is about."
Sunday, November 23, 2008, Section C * * * *