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8 MEN OUT

When Bucs players posed for a picture at Aloha Stadium in February commemorating their appearance in the Pro Bowl, it should have been an aerial shot.

Nine Tampa Bay players represented the NFC in Hawaii _ the most of any team.

But of those nine, only one _ placekicker Martin Gramatica _ is having an arguably better season in 2001 than he did in 2000. Seeming to fall short of the mark are Warrick Dunn, Mike Alstott, John Lynch, Donnie Abraham, Derrick Brooks, Warren Sapp, Randall McDaniel and Jeff Christy.

No wonder coach Tony Dungy told his players on Wednesday to quit looking to their Pro Bowl teammates to pull the club out of its tailspin.

"Tony's message was just don't look to those guys. But I think those guys are looking at themselves," Lynch said. "Hopefully, everyone on this team is. And if we get that working, like Tony says, we'll be all right."

Defensively, the Bucs have sunk from fifth overall at this point last season to tied for 10th. And they can no longer stop the run, falling to 22nd in the NFL in rushing defense. They were tied for 1Oth a year ago.

"That's rather subjective. It depends on how you look at it," Brooks said. "My numbers compared to last year are right on. But I know me, personally, I've not played the type of game I've wanted to play because I've been injured."

Brooks is wrong on one count _ his numbers are slightly down from last season _ due in no small part to his foot sprain.

After seven games in 2000, Brooks had 84 tackles, compared with 66 at the same point this season. And more than a third of those stops came in his club record 23-tackle day at Minnesota on Sept. 30.

Perhaps no player is more glaringly absent than Sapp. In training camp, he boldly announced his plans to break the NFL sack record of 22 held by former Jets defensive lineman Mark Gastineau.

But Sapp has just one sack this season, compared with 9.5 he had at the same point a year ago.

In fact, the defensive line composed of four No. 1 draft picks has only helped produce 13 sacks this season. Heading into Week 8 a year ago, Tampa Bay had 35 sacks.

However, Sapp doesn't shy away from the pressure he put on himself and his team.

"If you're not going to reach for the moon, how the hell are you going to hang out with the stars?" he said. "You're talking about a person that puts in the work that I put in with my teammates for 16 weeks and is confident in his ballclub. I'm still confident. I don't care about the shots. It doesn't affect me. I can't worry about things I can't control. I've always been a target, so shoot away."

Lynch is quick not to let people pile on Sapp and Brooks.

"You just look at the game at Minnesota when he (Brooks) had 23 tackles," Lynch said. "And I have a lot of respect for what Warren is doing right now. He's getting three guys slid his way and he's holding up as best he can and whipping the guy in front of him on every down. But I'm sure he expects more out of himself. I think that's good. And I guarantee by the end of this year, what we're accustomed to is going to show up on the field."

For Brooks and other players like Dunn, Alstott, Christy and Marcus Jones, their lack of productivity is in direct correlation with practice time missed.

"Those little things within my own game is frustrating," Brooks said. "It's not just from a productivity standpoint. It's just that I'm hurt, I can't break as fast as I normally break. I can't practice. I haven't practiced as many days as I normally practice."

Nowhere has Brooks' game been missed more than on third down. The Bucs were first in the NFL in third-down defense a year ago, allowing a conversion percentage of 26.3. This year, they have been ranked as low as 30th with 44.3 percent.

Lynch has tried to take up the slack for the defense, and while his numbers show some improvement, he has faltered when it comes to making the big plays time and again.

"I've been pleased, but I've been frustrated that I haven't made more of the big impact plays that turn the tide of the game," Lynch said.

"Up to this point, although I've played solid, I haven't played up to my expectations."

Lynch, a three-time Pro Bowl safety, has 57 tackles this season, about one more per game than he averaged last year. And while he has come through with game-saving plays (an interception at Dallas and a pass defensed against the visiting Packers), he feels he hasn't made enough of an impact.

"When Tony gets up there, you feel like he's talking right at you. At Green Bay, I played 59 plays. And 57 of them, I played my a-- off. Two of them, I wish I could have back. Not that those were necessarily my plays, but I expect to make them when my team needs me to. You have to find a way. I've done it before and I expect that out of myself."

Dungy and the Bucs have been searching for ways. Two weeks ago, he benched Abraham in favor of backup Brian Kelly at cornerback.

"It's one of the things I said to the team (Wednesday)," Dungy said. "We can't just look to our Pro Bowl guys and say, "This guy has to catch more, this guy has got to run better.' We've all got to play better."

Offensively, the list of suspects is longer.

Only receiver Keyshawn Johnson, who didn't make the Pro Bowl a year ago, has earned a vacation to Hawaii with an NFC-leading 52 receptions.

But on the rushing side, the Bucs have fallen to 29th in the league.

Much of the heat has come on the offensive line with its apparent toxic blend of youth and experience.

The Bucs' O-line has yielded 27 sacks _ more than double the 11 allowed at this point last season.

Naturally, the focus has been on whether McDaniel _ the Methuselah of offensive guards _ and Christy, the center, have slipped in their twilight years.

But offensive line coach Chris Foerster defends his two veterans. "These guys are playing as good or better than they did a year ago," he said. "There's other stuff going on, whatever it is, it's not for me to talk about.

"I hate doing that. I hate standing here saying, "Randall has played fine and Jeff has played fine' and let everybody else figure it out. I'm not trying to do that. I'm not throwing anybody under the bus, I'm really not. But I also don't think that 64 (McDaniel) and 62 (Christy) should get steamrolled."

Speaking of steamrolled, quarterback Brad Johnson has a better completion percentage (62.8-52.9), touchdown to interception ratio (eight to four last season and six to six this season) and efficiency rating (85.5 to 70.6) than Shaun King did at the same point last season.

But the passing game is an identical 24th in the league _ same as with King at the helm.

If there's one Pro Bowl player who has improved over last season it's Gramatica, who is 8-for-10 in 2001 and was 8-for-12 in 2000.

"You can make a lot of excuses," Dungy said. "What we haven't had everyone practicing. Mike is practicing at tailback all week and Warrick played in the game. Brooks doesn't practice all week. (Jeff) Gooch practices. Then Brooks plays. Unfortunately, it's been that way all year."

Of course, the year isn't over. Or is it?

"Believe me, I still think we can have the same numbers," Dunn said. "The season is at the midway point. That's all it is. It's not over. I can show you a couple Pro Bowl players that came on this time last year and had career years. Everyone has to play better, not just Pro Bowlers."

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