TAMPA — Monte Kiffin is the best in the business at coaching defense, but he doesn't get enough credit for evaluating and developing talent.
This season, the Bucs have a chance to be special because of their depth on defense and the skill of their young players.
Tampa Bay is tied for third in fewest points allowed at 16.2 per game, first in red zone defense (27.3 touchdown percentage) and fifth in average rush per attempt (3.4 yards).
But look behind the numbers and you'll see Kiffin taking advantage of a lot of long, fast, athletic young players like DE Gaines Adams, 25, CB Aqib Talib, 22, S Tanard Jackson, 23, and S Sabby Piscitelli, 25 — all drafted within the past two seasons.
Last week, the Bucs shut down Carolina's running game and forced QB Jake Delhomme to hold onto the ball because of an array of three-man fronts and zone blitzes.
Delhomme was intercepted three times, but it could have been much worse. Three others were dropped, including one by Adams, who has two picks this season. Talib recorded his second pick and forced another.
"We are, we're doing a few things a little bit different," Kiffin said. "You still stay the same with your basic principles. We still player Cover 2. But we've also done some other things. We had a little three-man rush. We have (Derrick) Brooks and Cato (June) on the field at the same time. We have all three linebackers at times. So I think we've just got to keep working at it.
"I think what you noticed was the tackling was really impressive. When it's all said and done, we got to keep that going. Sixteen weeks is a long time, but if you're a good defense, you've got to bring it every Sunday."
If there is a weakness for the Bucs, it's their lack of consistent pressure on the quarterback. Tampa Bay has 11 sacks, tied for 17th in the league.
"We've just got to keep making plays and tackling. It's not only the tackling, it's the swarming," LB Barrett Ruud said. "That's the key, having people get to the ball like that. Good things happen."
Check egos: Credit the examples of Brooks, Ronde Barber and Earnest Graham, but the Bucs are playing to win and not worrying about who gets credit.
Last week, Graham volunteered to play fullback when Byron Storer tore his right ACL, a rare gesture for a feature back in the NFL. Brooks and Barber have agreed to come off the field at times to let younger and fresher legs in the game. All of it is paying off.
"This is a team that cares about the team," coach Jon Gruden said. "They're a group of guys who want to win, first and foremost. They'll put their egos at the door. Whatever they feel is going to help us win, they're all for that."
A-Train's final stop: Take a bow, Mike Alstott. You deserve it. The Bucs' all-time career touchdown leader (71) will be honored tonight at halftime. It will be a touching tribute to arguably the most popular player in club history.
The Bucs announced plans to begin a Ring of Honor next season and vowed to wear their throwback orange uniforms. Only Brooks remains of the players who wore Bucco Bruce on a helmet. Eventually, Alstott's No. 40 will be retired, as will Warren Sapp's No. 99, John Lynch's No. 47, Brooks' No. 55, Barber's No. 20 and many others. But the team needs to recognize the players and coaches from the earliest era like Hall of Fame DE Lee Roy Selmon and John McKay, the team's first coach.
"If you needed a short-yardage run, you needed a block, you needed a guy to be the personal protector of the punter, he was always there for us," Gruden said of Alstott. "And what he overcame — a serious neck injury — and to continue playing … sums us up the best."