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Some primary concerns about Bucs secondary

He comes into the game as an extra defensive back, just spare change in the Bucs' nickel and dime pass coverages. In these situations, Rodney Rice likes to consider himself a cornerstone of the Bucs' defense. But after allowing the Cowboys' Michael Irvin to blow past him last week for the winning touchdown, Rice was a corner stoned _ by paper cups and verbal insults hurled at him from Tampa Stadium as he headed to the locker room.

"Sunday night, it hurt so bad I couldn't sleep," said Rice. "I'm alone here and my family is 3,000 miles away. Not that I felt like being with other people anyway, but it would've been nice to have the support if I wanted it."

In fact, had Rice gotten the support from safety Mark Robinson that the defense called for on that play, the Bucs might be 5-2 instead of 4-3 when they line up against San Diego this afternoon.

But the breakdown in the secondary against Dallas only served to expose perhaps the most suspect unit in the Bucs' young and reckless defense.

Tampa Bay ranks 14th in the NFL

against the pass and has allowed opponents an average of 208 yards through the air per game.

A combination of young newcomers and veteran holdouts during the off-season may have held up the progress of the Bucs' secondary, which should be anything but green and growing.

Robinson and Harry Hamilton, who were teammates at Penn State, provide the Bucs with 14 years of experience at the safety positions. Meanwhile, starting left cornerback Ricky Reynolds, a fourth-year pro, has led the club in interceptions each of the past two seasons.

"We've got a good group, because we've got not only talented players but smart guys like Harry and Mark," said Bucs defensive coordinator and secondary coach Fred Bruney. "They're smart. They're true pros. They're in there studying the tape all the time. Like a lot of people say, without a lot of speed it's hard to be an All Pro. But they play like it most of the time."

But both Robinson, 28, and Hamilton, 27, are getting up in years and they are not fast enough to overcome mistakes with speed.

Such was the case last week against Dallas.

The Cowboys drove 80 yards in seven plays to score the winning touchdown on a 28-yard pass from Troy Aikman to Irvin with 23 seconds left in the game.

A communication breakdown the play before had allowed Dallas receiver Alexander Wright to break free about 10 yards from the nearest Bucs defender, but Aikman overthrew him badly.

On the touchdown play, Rice was lined up on the left corner against Irvin and was supposed to cover him using a trailing technique designed to prevent a sudden cut over the middle or toward the sidelines.

Robinson was supposed to give Rice help deep, but Aikman froze the Buc safety by looking him off to the right and throwing back to Irvin in the left corner of the end zone.

"Mark was a little slow getting over there," said Bucs coach Ray Perkins. "It's probably the only mistake he's made all year."

Even though he was not at fault, Rice took the blame. Signed as a Plan B free agent from New England during the off-season, the second-year pro misread Robinson's break on the ball.

"I think we learned a big lesson," Rice said. "We've got to learn how to shut the gates. How to slam the door. We beat them up the whole game. I was so happy when we went into the fourth quarter because I thought it was the first game I was going to walk away from feeling good about everything. Then on the last play they hit one, and I have to go home feeling terrible. I can take humiliation on myself. But what I felt worse about was that I let my fellas down."

Of course, Tampa Bay has been down that path before. Four times in the last two seasons, in games against Detroit, San Francisco, Green Bay and Dallas, the Bucs appeared to have the game salted away before their defense allowed the winning points with less than a minute to play.

Part of the problem is new faces. Free agent Wayne Haddix, who leads the NFL in interceptions with five and has returned two for touchdowns, did not play after being waived on the final cut by the New York Giants.

Haddix has been a gift from the gods for the Bucs, replacing first-round flop Rod Jones, who was traded to Cincinnati. But he still is learning to fit in with veterans Reynolds, Robinson and Hamilton.

Throw an extra defensive back like Rice or Eric Everett into the equation on passing downs, and there are bound to be some blown signals. Communication becomes difficult.

"It's not only saying things, but knowing how the other guy is going to react," Rice said. "How he's going to break on the ball. You get that feeling after you've been around each other for a while. A secondary really needs to grow together.

"In New England, that secondary had played together for seven years and up. And when injuries happened and rookies would go in, it was difficult because they were using the same signals and the new people didn't know what was going on. We needed everything to be verbal. Pointed out and shown. But hey, it's really tough to be new to a system and you're back there with people who've played together a long time. You've got to fit in there like a little cornerstone and understand what they're doing."

Robinson, once part of one of the best secondaries in football during his days with the Kansas City Chiefs, says the Bucs still have a ways to go.

"We have to do our jobs and pick the other guy up," Robinson said. "Even if it's just me saying, "Hey, Wayne, I've studied this formation and this is the play they like to run.' Or him telling me, "Watch the man cutting inside. I felt like he wanted to beat me inside and I wouldn't let him in there.' When we get that kind of relationship, we can accomplish a lot. I think we have it, but we have to work hard on it."

Most of the ills in the Bucs' secondary this season have come during nickel and dime coverages, when defenses employ five or six defensive backs.

Despite the Bucs shutting out the Cowboys' offense for nearly four quarters last week, Aikman moved it almost at will against the prevent defense in the final two minutes.

Why? How come it's so easy to gain ground with so many extra defensive backs in the game?

"The big thing you're trying to do is eliminate what happened to us last week," Perkins said. "So you give them the 5-, 6-, 7-, 10-yard pass, tackle them and keep them in bounds. You don't want them to complete them, but you sacrifice some of those so you don't play them too tight that they hit a big play."

And once a defensive back gets burned on a play, you can bet the offense is going to try and keep fanning the fire. It was a similar situation in the season opener at Detroit, when the Lions completed four straight passes to Rice's side, including one for a touchdown.

Not all of those catches were by Rice's receiver, but the Lions knew it was the first pro start for the Bucs' free agent and tested him early.

"It's tough being a defensive back, especially a corner," Rice said. "You have to make mistakes, put it in the past and go on and play. You have to, because if you don't, they'll continue to pick on you. The receivers can feel it. You're out there getting a little timid and you think you're the only one messing up. They read that and come after you all day long. You have to learn to really have a tough skin.

"It's like after the game. Everybody came over to me. You know, I'm not going to point fingers. I was at fault just like everybody else. I said I'd take the blame if that's what they wanted to hear. You've just got to let that stuff roll off your back."

If Tampa Bay's defense is to continue improving steadily this season, much of that progress will have to come in the secondary _ the primary culprits in last week's collapse against Dallas.

"This has the potential to be a great secondary," Robinson said. "We didn't take a step backward. You take it for what it is. A loss. A close loss. It hurts a little more than if you were blown out, I guess. I've been trying to keep myself from overcompensating. Trying not to get down. Just do the things I always do that were successful."

Or as Bruney says, "It's just a hell of a bad feeling to be on the sideline and see what happened. What can you say?"