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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary adapts ballhawking mentality to scheme

Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib intercepts a pass intended for Bengals receiver Terrell Owens, on the ground. Talib has a team-high three interceptions while Ronde Barber has two.

DANIEL WALLACE | Times

Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib intercepts a pass intended for Bengals receiver Terrell Owens, on the ground. Talib has a team-high three interceptions while Ronde Barber has two.

TAMPA — Bucs coach Raheem Morris, just like his predecessor, Jon Gruden, often says "stats are for losers," their way of saying numbers don't tell the whole story.

But there's at least one notable exception to that statement, a statistic that can often be indicative of a team playing a winning brand of football.

When it comes to turnovers, the Bucs have a plus-5 margin built mainly on the play of a secondary that is gobbling up interceptions at a record-setting pace.

With nine interceptions in four games, the Bucs are tied with Carolina for second most in the NFL behind the Falcons (10). And it's those interceptions that have played a key role in keeping the Bucs in games they might not otherwise have won, such as Sunday against Cincinnati, in which Tampa Bay had three picks and moved to 3-1.

The Bucs are in good company, ranked fifth in turnover margin. Each of the teams in front of them, the Jets (plus-11) along with the Steelers, Eagles and Falcons (plus-7), have winning records, with all but one having just a single loss.

For the Bucs, this flurry of interceptions isn't the product of a few lucky bounces or tipped balls. There have been some, but what's unfolding is the result of a culture the Bucs created long ago under former coach Tony Dungy, one in which turnovers aren't just encouraged, they are expected.

In the secondary, that means when a defensive back has even the slimmest shot at the football, he had better come down with it.

"When we get our hands on the ball, we're expected to make the catch," said safety Cody Grimm, who intercepted Bengals quarterback Carson Palmer and returned it for a touchdown in the second quarter.

"In practice one day, somebody dropped an interception and was happy and celebrating the (deflection). I think we were high-fiving or something, and a coach said, 'That was a great job getting yourself there, but that is not a good play!' It was a great play, but not good enough. We've just kind of stuck with that, and it's paying off for us. It's a shoot-for-the-stars sort of thing."

Defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said: "We've missed some (interceptions). That's something we're not happy about. We feel like we should have 14 or 15 interceptions right now."

Each week, between breaking down the tendencies of receivers they'll face and the habits of opposing quarterbacks, the defensive backs are subjected to film sessions in which Lake shows cutups of the best defensive backs in the league. Charles Woodson of the Packers is frequently featured, not only because of his penchant for interceptions but because he also has a knack for forcing fumbles.

"I show them a lot of reels from teams around the league," Lake said. "How are teams getting interceptions? What coverages are they using? What disguises are they trying? We're always trying to stay on the cutting edge of getting the ball back."

The reason for the emphasis is obvious: the momentum shift after an interception can be matched by few other events on the field.

Look at the aftermath of safety Sabby Piscitelli's interception Sunday. On the first play from the Bengals' 34-yard line, quarterback Josh Freeman hit receiver Micheal Spurlock for a gain of 21 to the 13, where Connor Barth hit a 31-yard field goal to win it.

The interceptions was a symbolic punch in the gut to the Bengals, who failed to gather themselves while the Bucs rode the resulting emotional wave.

"I think it definitely sparks something," Piscitelli said. "Especially on the road. You don't have that fan support, so it's just us out there. You need that boost, that excitement on the sideline. And that carries over. It pulls you together, and it gets the momentum back in your favor."

Although players are expected to make interceptions, it's key is to get them while playing within the structure of the defense. Getting away from one's assignment might be tempting at times, but there's a reason coaches spend hours game planning. There is a fine line between trying for an interception and taking a poorly calculated risk that can get you beat.

"It has to be done within the defense," Lake said. "But I think we do a good job as a coaching staff of coming up with stuff that may look like this or that but is actually something different. Anytime you can confuse an NFL quarterback, and you're rarely ever able to do that, that's a bonus for us."

The Bucs have their work cut out for them this Sunday given their matchup with Super Bowl MVP Drew Brees of the Saints, one of those quarterbacks Lake knows is rarely fooled. But if the Bucs manage to pull out another win, chances are they will do so with the help of an interception, or, as the case has been, two or three.

Stephen F. Holder can be reached at sholder@sptimes.com.

. fast facts

Pick 'em

The Bucs have nine interceptions in four games, projecting to 36 over a full season. The team records for most passes intercepted:

In a season

32 1981

31 2002

29 1978

In a game

6at New Orleans,

Dec. 11, 1977
5five times, most recently at Seattle, Nov. 28, 1999

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' secondary adapts ballhawking mentality to scheme 10/15/10 [Last modified: Friday, October 15, 2010 10:20pm]

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