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Bucs seek finishing touch

Against the Packers, the Bucs gave up a 10-point lead and watched the game slip away. They did the same Sunday against the Lions and watched that one nearly slip away too.

Sunday was the third time, including a 20-16 loss in Minnesota on Sept. 30, the Bucs have seen leads late in the game evaporate. Twice they have lost and the win came on a last-minute field goal against the 0-8 Lions.

Finishing opponents, once a forte of the Bucs defense, now appears to be a failing.

"To tell you the truth, I can't tell you why there's a difference between this year and the past but it has not been the same way, that's for sure," cornerback Ronde Barber said Monday. "It's happened three or four times this year, and I don't think it happened three or four times the last few years.

"It has to be important to you and something you want to accomplish. You have to take those last few plays as seriously and with as much intensity as you have taken the first few plays."

Sunday, the Bucs forced turnovers, amassed sacks and stopped the run, but the letdown still came.

After Karl Williams' 84-yard punt return propelled Tampa Bay to a 17-7 lead as the third quarter ended, the Bucs seemed poised to put the game away. In fact, they thwarted Detroit's first drive of the fourth quarter with an interception and held the Lions to a field goal on the second possession.

But, as happened the week before in Green Bay, Tampa Bay's defense failed to hold.

"Defensively, we've got to start slamming the door on people again," coach Tony Dungy said Monday after reviewing the film. "When we're up 10 points, we've got to be able to hold those leads."

Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks pointed out that the inability to put away opponents this season is a team issue. There have been cases when the offense hasn't sustained drives and keep the defense off the field. Against the Packers, it was a 55-yard punt return by Allen Rossum that made the difference.

"I agree with (the fact that we have struggled to put teams away), to some extent, but it's everybody," Brooks said Monday. "It's the offense, running the ball and getting a few first downs. It's the special teams getting field position. It's the defense (not stopping them) on third down. It seems every game we hit a lull and it cost us."

Some of it is Brooks himself. One of the critical cogs in the defensive scheme, Brooks is commonly in place to clean up ball carriers and receivers over the middle. The defense, in some ways, is designed for Brooks to make impact plays.

But while still on pace to lead the team in tackles, Brooks has been hampered by a left foot sprain and admits he has not had the same impact on the team.

"I'm still getting tackles but I guess from the standpoint of the big play, the turnovers, stops on third down, they haven't been there," Brooks said.

Dungy said Brooks' injury shows up on film.

"He's not the same," Dungy said. "But he's playing pretty well and every week he seems to get better. I think down the stretch, we're going to get the Derrick Brooks we're used to."

Brooks, who needs eight tackles to top Hardy Nickerson for the franchise career record, agreed.

"Of course, I'm not the same," he said. "I'm not so full of pride to not accept that I haven't played that well (since the injury). But it's something that I never had and I have to get over."

Some of it can be traced to the pass rush. The defensive line, before Sunday, had not tormented quarterbacks in a manner commonly associated with a group led by Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp.

Against the Vikings, for instance, the Bucs did everything to drag down Daunte Culpepper and he continued to make plays. Culpepper engineered an 11-play, 96-yard drive that ended with his 8-yard winning touchdown run.

"That's always been where we wanted to be, to be 10 points up and make the other team have to come back," Dungy said. "We had our chances and we kind of allowed (Detroit) back in it. It wasn't all the pass rush. We had some breakdowns in coverage. We didn't tackle as we needed to.

"We had a lot of things we can do better. But when we do get to that point, we don't expect to have to use a two-minute drive in the end to win it. It was great to have, but we should have slammed the door on them."