Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Drawing the Line

Tampa Bay’s unparalleled defensive line comes up big in the team’s NFC Divisional Playoff victory

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DT Warren Sapp recorded one sack and a fumble recovery against Washington

If it's true that NFL football games are won in the trenches, then bring on the shovels because Tampa Bay s digging in.

As was brilliantly illustrated in the Buccaneers' thrilling 14-13 NFC Divisional Playoff win over the Washington Redskins on Saturday, Tampa Bay is well-equipped to win a war in the trenches. The Buccaneers' defensive line, in fact, is like a trench: deep and indispensable. Against the Redskins the front four of defensive tackles Warren Sapp and Brad Culpepper and defensive ends Steve White and Chidi Ahanotu keyed an effort that held the NFL's second-ranked offense to just 157 yards.

That broke down into 46 rushing yards and 111 net passing yards after four quarterback sacks. "We pride ourselves on stopping the run," said Ahanotu. "Our front four is the best in football. (Washington RB) Stephen Davis did a good job tonight but I think we got to him after awhile."

In fact, Davis, who led the NFC with 1,405 rushing yards during the regular season and averaged a robust 4.8 yards per carry, was stifled all night. Davis, who came into the game with nagging ankle and knee injuries, gained just 37 yards on 17 carries, averaging 2.2 yards per pop. After taking a 10-0 lead early in the third quarter, Washington tried to grind it out by sending Davis up the middle, but the big back would net just two second-half yards on five carries. Washington's inability to run on the Buccaneers in the middle of the third quarter allowed Tampa Bay to remain within striking distance.

"The defense gave a great effort and they hung in there long enough for the offense to get on track," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "That's how we like to play. We like to play close games because we feel like, if it's close going into the fourth quarter, we've got a chance to win."

Still, Tampa Bay might not have been in position to win if Tampa Bay's front four hadn't dialed the pressure up a notch in the fourth quarter. After FB Mike Alstott scored Tampa Bay's first touchdown late in the third period to pull the team within six, the defensive line began to feed off the thunderous crowd noise and started to get nonstop pressure on QB Brad Johnson. Johnson was eventually sacked four times for 38 yards, relinquishing the ball on a fumble in the fourth quarter to set up Tampa Bay's winning score.

"RJS got into it after the interception by (safety John) Lynch," said Ahanotu, "and that pumped us up."

Lynch's mid-third quarter pick set up Tampa Bay's first touchdown, then White got to Johnson less than two minutes into the final period to produce the Bucs' second takeaway. Johnson dropped back and rolled right on second-and-12 from the Redskins' 44, only to be chased down from behind by White. White's sack knocked the ball out of Johnson's grasp and DT Warren Sapp fell on the loose ball on the 'Skins' 32. Ten plays later, the Buccaneers had the lead.

"John Lynch made some big plays," said Sapp, who had a sack of his own in the second quarter to stifle a Washington drive that had momentarily reached field goal territory. "Steve White made some bigger plays. … The defense is our strength. We stayed in our gaps, made tackles and we were able to eliminate the running game. We got in Johnson's face and kept on pressing him."

Sapp's work wasn't done. On the next drive after Tampa Bay had taken its fateful lead, Sapp sniffed out a screen pass to RB Larry Centers and dropped Centers for a four-yard loss to force an unmanageable third-and-14. When Washington got the ball back after a pair of punts, Sapp helped force a long field goal attempt by stopping RB Skip Hicks for no gain on third-and-3 from the 33. The Redskins had to try a 52-yard field goal from that spot and were unable to convert due to a bad snap.

The events leading up to that doomed field goal try were certainly tense, but they weren't exactly unfamiliar on the Bucs' sideline. Tampa Bay won four games this season in which it trailed at halftime, overcoming many similar deficits, thanks in large part to a defense that allowed just over six points per second half during the regular season. In close games such as Saturday's, when the pressure builds in the second half, the Buccaneer defensive line tends to 'pin its ears back', as Sapp as fond of saying.

"We don't know what 62-7 is like," said Culpepper, referring to Jacksonville's earlier dominant win over Miami in the AFC playoffs. "Every team we play it's like this. We are a fourth-quarter team. When it was 13-7, it was like, 'Here we go again.' We like it like that, but when it's playoff time, it's a little scary. But that's how we win.

"If you don't come in and get ready for sixty minutes of football, you might as well go home because we gotcha."

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