The Bucs only had eight sacks through their first nine games of the season, the fewest in the NFL. But Sunday against 49ers QB Troy Smith, the Bucs they picked up six, nearly doubling their season total.
Quarter/sacked by Loss Drive result
1 Bennett -2 Punt
1 McCoy/Woods -5 Punt
3 Hayward -3 Punt
Quarter/sacked by Loss Drive result
4 White -11 Downs
4 Magee -4 Downs
4 McCoy/White -5 Downs
SAN FRANCISCO — Somewhere, in a living room far, far away, Derrick Brooks was nodding his head. Somewhere, alone with his thoughts, Warren Sapp took time to smile. Somewhere, thinking about his young days, John Lynch pumped his fist.
Somewhere, Lee Roy Selmon turned to a friend and said it for the rest of us.
"Yeah, this is how the Bucs used to play defense."
Call it the return of the D.
Call it the end of the nonsense.
Call it the rebirth of the bruise.
Finally, the Bucs put a stop to a defensive backslide that has been going on for several seasons now. Finally, they smothered an opponent's running game. Finally, they harassed an opposing quarterback. Finally, in a 21-0 victory over San Francisco, they lived up to the photos of the old legends that adorn the training facility at One Buc Place.
Granted, it is easy enough to poke fun at an inept 49ers team today. San Francisco's game plan seemed to be lifted out of Amos Alonzo Stagg's old etchings, and the overwhelmed Troy Smith looked like a quarterback whose agent should begin to send resumes to the UFL before the postage rates go up. And as punishment, the franchise ought to be called the 29ers for the next two weeks.
But for the Bucs defense, which has had sand kicked in its face for most of the season, this was a fine day nevertheless. And if you can sort through the 49ers' incompetence enough to find the Bucs' improvement, it might suggest even better days are ahead.
For so many days this year, the Bucs defense has looked as if it has been trying to stop a very large boulder from knocking it off a very high cliff. Running backs slashed the Bucs, and quarterbacks gashed them, and everyone else pointed and laughed. The defense was last when it came to sacks, and next to last when it came to stopping the run.
Perhaps that is why it was such a welcome sight to see the Bucs remind the NFL how Tampa Bay used to play defense.
It has been a while, but yeah, this is how defense looks, with assorted players meeting at Frank Gore's sternum. Gore, the 49ers tailback who is well on his way to his fifth consecutive 1,000 yard season, was buried on Sunday. He ran the ball 12 times, and on nine of those he was held to 3 yards or less. For the day, he had 23 yards with an average of 1.9 yards per attempt.
"Most people probably thought he'd gain about 130 yards on us," defensive tackle Roy Miller said. "Today, we played with a chip on our shoulders."
It is also the way a defense sounds. With popping pads accented by happy chatter.
Take the locker room, where Stylez White and Gerald McCoy were in a boisterous, good-natured discussion over who should get credit for the Bucs' final sack of the day (the game stats split the sack between them).
"It was me," White said, grinning.
"Don't take it from me," McCoy howled. "I need it. I went low, and I rolled him, and you jumped on his back. And you kicked me in the eye, which is why I can't see. I'm going to fight for that sack."
Sunday, the fight for sacks was a free-for-all. Consider this: The Bucs' defensive line had five sacks on Sunday after having only five in the previous nine games.
Most of all, this is how good defense feels.
Ronde Barber, who has played in a game or two when the Bucs defense was humming, said it reminded him of the old days. Barrett Ruud said it felt as if the Bucs were in control most of the day.
"We had a feeling that, 'these guys can't score,' " Ruud said. "They can't do it unless we screw up. That's the feeling you'd like to develop, where the other team can't score unless we make a mistake."
Coach Raheem Morris will tell you this was the seventh time the Bucs have played great on defense, because it's the seventh time the other team didn't score as many as the Bucs did. That's cute, but Morris knows better. The Bucs haven't been good enough defensively to keep the victories coming. Success isn't about the statistics, but about the performance.
Sunday, the Bucs were excellent. They plugged holes, and they made plays, and they pointed out that Smith might not be the answer the 49ers thought him to be. They could have played until Thanksgiving dinner, and the 49ers weren't going to reach the end zone.
Look, it's hard to shut out anyone in the NFL. In the 35-year history of the franchise, the Bucs have only 10 shutouts. And the 49ers hadn't been shut out at home since 1977. Even the diminished 49ers don't diminish what the Bucs accomplished.
More than anything, this seems to show the directions to victory for the Bucs' young defensive players. Most weeks, against most opponents, you start by stopping the run. You continue by choking off the opponent on third down. You get a couple of turnovers along the way. And you finish off teams by rushing the passer.
You know, like this. Against the 49ers, the Bucs allowed only 71 yards rushing, and 45 of those were by Smith as he scrambled away from pressure. They had two takeaways and stopped the 49ers three times on downs. They allowed only a 51.5 quarterback rating to Smith. The 49ers converted only 3 of 12 third downs and 0 of 3 fourth downs. The 49ers never got closer to scoring than the Bucs 33.
"The way those guys up front play determines the way we play, and today, they came out with a purpose," Barber said. "I'll give those guys a lot of credit. They've taken a lot of criticism, internally and externally, and they stepped up today. They dominated the run game, and it's been a long time since we've been able to say this."
Can they keep it up?
With the talk of playoffs about to get louder, they had better.