Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Closer than Ever

Bucs-‘Skins games have always been tight…on paper, it now appears tighter than ever

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QB Shaun King actually completed this pass for a touchdown last January, but the Redskins' pass rush is even stronger in 2000

They've come out smoking on defense, holding opponents to less than 270 yards per game and keeping three of their first four foes under 20 points.

The team they're facing? The fifth-highest scoring offense in the NFL, a quick-strike group that has already recorded seven completions of over 30 yards.

That may sound like a familiar lead-in for a Tampa Bay Buccaneers-Washington Redskins game, but this year, you have to flip the scripts. It's the Redskins defense described above, a unit that, statistically, is light years from last year's 30th-ranked group. And it's the Bucs' offense, scoring 27.5 points per game, that they must try to stifle. Last season, Tampa Bay ranked near the bottom of the league in scoring.

So the Bucs' offense is now rolling and the Redskins' defense is loaded for bear. On paper, that would make Sunday's affair a very compelling matchup. After all, these teams met in the playoffs last January when the Bucs and Redskins were considered less complete teams, and the result was a thrilling 14-13 Tampa Bay win.

When that analysis is presented to Buccaneer Head Coach Tony Dungy, he agrees with part of it.

"On paper, I guess," said Dungy at the team's hotel in Washington, D.C.. "But those were two pretty good teams last year, also. I think they added some more defensive firepower and we've added some more offensive firepower, so we'll see how it plays out."

That's a reasonable distinction on Dungy's part. The Redskins' defense was quite effective in Raymond James Stadium last January and the Bucs' offense has been on the rise ever since QB Shaun King took over last December. Dungy doesn't find the Redskins' 2000 prowess on defense all that hard to believe.

"They were actually on the upswing at the end of the year last year," said Dungy. "They got off to a rough start, but I'd say the second half of the year they were playing pretty solid defense."

Still, there's no ignoring the strides Washington has made since last January, just as the Bucs' are clearly more explosive in 2000 than they were in 1999. Opponents have found it much more difficult to pass on the 'Skins this year, and not just because CB Deion Sanders has been imported. With ends Marco Coleman and Bruce Smith, another big-name acquisition, bringing ceaseless pressure from the outside, the Redskins have already racked up 13 sacks and have held their opponents to 163 passing yards per game.

S Mark Carrier, another 2000 import, is the team's leading tackler and first-round draftee LaVar Arrington has already moved into the starting lineup at strongside linebacker.

Tampa Bay's offensive turnaround can be traced in part to the addition of new coordinator Les Steckel. Similarly, the Redskins' defense is now led by former Philadelphia and Green Bay Head Coach Ray Rhodes, a well-respected defensive coach.

"It's a new coaching staff and a new aggressive style that they're playing," said Dungy. "And they do have good personnel. I think it's probably a reflection of where they are right now.

"What they're doing under Ray – they're playing aggressively, they're playing a lot more man-to-man coverage, and they're not making very many mistakes."

DE Bruce Smith, a 16-year veteran and the second all-time leading sacker in NFL history, has seemingly been around as long as Rhodes, but is still going strong with 22 tackles, three sacks and a forced fumble. His presence is helping the Redskins get the most out of their well-known cornerback trio of Sanders, Darrell Green and Champ Bailey, and vice versa.

"He's helping them in the rush," said Dungy. "They've been able to do some things because of the corners they have now. Arrington is still feeling his way but he's going to be a very good player for them. I think, as a unit, they've picked up the pace."

Though the Redskins flurry of offseason maneuvers concerning the defense was met by skepticism in some corners, the early returns indicate that they have meshed the new parts into a working whole rather quickly. According to Dungy, that's because Rhodes and Head Coach Norv Turner have devised a good plan for the personnel.

"They're taking care of the middle of the field and saying to beat us you have to beat us outside, you have to beat our corners," said Dungy. "They clog up the middle and rush the passer. That's a good strategy with the personnel they have."

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