DT Warren Sapp may have a budding rivalry with Kurt Warner that will match his ongoing friendly feud with Green Bay's Brett Favre
In 1999, St. Louis quarterback Kurt Warner was the NFL's MVP, and Tampa Bay defensive tackle Warren Sapp was the league's Defensive Player of the Year. The two met in the NFC Championship Game in January, and though Sapp did not record a sack, the Bucs' constant defensive pressure held the Rams about three touchdowns below their season average in an 11-6 St. Louis victory.
Warner ceded his MVP trophy to teammate Marshall Faulk last year, and Sapp saw his defensive award usurped by Baltimore linebacker Ray Lewis. Still, neither Warner nor Sapp showed any signs of letting up in 2000, with the Rams hurler racking up 3,429 yards and 21 touchdowns and the Buc pass rusher setting a career high with 16.5 sacks. Two of those QB takedowns came against Warner in an epic Monday night battle in December, won by the Bucs, 38-35.
The 2001 season, on the other hand, has not gone exactly as intended for either player, though to a lesser degree with Warner. His Rams still owned the league's best record after nine games, but the former MVP had thrown 13 interceptions, nine in the last three games, as opposed to 18 all of last year and 13 in all of 1999.
Sapp's Bucs, on the other hand, were a disappointing 4-5 coming into the Monday night rematch with St. Louis, and the four-time Pro Bowler had just three sacks on his own 2001 ledger. By all accounts, Sapp was playing well this season, but the numbers weren't piling up.
Leave it up to a national stage and another crack at Warner to bring out the best in Sapp.
On Monday, the Buccaneer leader matched his season high of two sacks, set two weeks ago in Detroit, and was a disruptive force throughout the game at the line of scrimmage. He forced one fumble and recovered another, kept Faulk from running free on several occasions and generally made life miserable for his 1999 trophy partner. Warner, who came into the game completing 68.9 percent of his passes this season, was harassed into a 19-of-39 outing by constant pressure from Sapp and his mates.
"Tonight, we were on top of our game," said Sapp of the Bucs' defense. "I have had two-sack games before. Last time I saw them on Monday night, I had a two-sack game and we won that, too. It's nothing new to me. I have had a rough season, but I had some opportunities tonight and I took advantage of them."
When Sapp speaks of 'opportunities,' he is usually referring to plays in which the opposing offense tries to block him one-on-one. Sapp still saw quite a few double teams on Monday – often, the guard would try to slide him outward, where the tackle would then add help in keeping him from the quarterback – but he also had occasion to match up man-to-man with a Rams interior lineman.
When that happened, more often than not, Sapp was quickly in the St. Louis backfield, creating havoc. On the first defensive play of the second half, for instance, Sapp immediately muscled past guard Tom Nutten, who was supposed to clear a lane for Faulk. Instead, Sapp got his hands on the back almost as soon as Faulk got the ball and slammed him backwards to the turf for a loss of four.
Most of the day, though, he was chasing Warner, and this time the effort showed up in the final stats.
"Warren's been playing pretty well, he just hasn't gotten the sacks," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "He's played the run well and rushed pretty well over the course of the year. (Warner) is a hard guy to get to, but this is (Sapp's) kind of surface and he was able to use his speed."
The second time Sapp was able to get Warner on the ground, he also caused a fumble that teammate Marcus Jones recovered at the Rams' 22, setting up a Martin Gramatica field goal that helped the Bucs take a 10-9 lead into halftime. That was one of five turnovers caused by Tampa Bay's defense on the day, and the Bucs' proud defenders were noticeably fired up by the effort. As usual, Sapp was their demonstrative leader.
"That's what it's all about," he said. "I want to get a fire started around here. I'm having a good time and everybody just kind of feeds off of it. We had to play our game tonight. We had to have this one."
The 8-2 Rams are still in the driver's seat in the NFC, and Warner is still piling up outlandish numbers at the helm of the Rams' gaudy attack. Even with Sapp's pressure and two fourth-quarter interceptions, Warner racked up 291 passing yards and a touchdown. He's on pace for an unreal 4,800 passing yards.
Sapp and the Bucs, on the other hand, have a tough road remaining with a 5-5 record and six games to go. After two thrilling games in the Rams' house over the past 23 months, Tampa Bay is merely wishing for an opportunity to visit again in the playoffs. If they do, the Sapp-Warner rivalry may begin to rival the one the Bucs' pass rusher has with Green Bay QB Brett Favre. The competitive but friendly banter is already shaping up.
"I told him tonight that was a good move on the one he shook me," said Sapp, recalling a play in which Warner got away from his quick rush. "He said, 'I don't have many moves, but that was the best thing I have.' He's got a little rhythm in him. He doesn't like to use it much, but he's got it."
Sapp, on the other hand, likes to shake it, to rock the house like he did Monday in the Dome at America's Center. Judging from his late-season surge after a first-half sack drought, those types of afternoons may become common once again.