DT Anthony McFarland had two of the Bucs' four sacks on Sunday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are 0-2 in 2004 despite allowing just 473 yards through two games and scoring almost as many touchdowns on defense (1) as they've allowed (2).
One reason for that, of course, is an offense that has yet to put the ball in the end zone. Add one offensive touchdown to each game and the Bucs might be sitting at 2-0.
Another reason, however, is that in the middle of each stellar performance, the Buccaneer defense has allowed one big play. Just one. How does that make Tampa Bay's stalwart defenders feel? Apparently, as angst-ridden as a 1990's slacker in his mid-20s.
"Reality bites right now," said defensive end Simeon Rice. "We're just going to keep pounding away defensively and play together as a team. Hopefully, this thing will get turned around."
In Week One, Washington running back Clinton Portis found a seam on his first carry as a Redskin and exploited it for a 64-yard touchdown. He spent the rest of the day banging his head against a stacked and determined Bucs' run defense.
On Sunday, the Bucs harried and harassed Pro Bowl quarterback Matt Hasselbeck into a 12-26, 147-yard day, but Hasselbeck ran one perfect pump-and-go to wide receiver Koren Robinson and the result was the game's only touchdown in a 10-6 Seahawk victory.
"At this point, two games into the season we've given up two big plays, and lost on those two plays," said cornerback Ronde Barber. "We're obviously not doing our job as good as we need to."
The harsh lights of a defeated postgame locker room will lead to such statements from a gamer like Barber, but his statement is surely too self-critical. The Buccaneers have allowed an average of 13 points per game, almost exactly what they surrendered during their magical 2002 season. While they've given up those two big plays, they've allowed no real sustained drives. After Portis' long run, Washington scored on field goal marches of 32, 27 and 51 yards. The Seahawks' two scoring drives covered 24 and 29 yards, respectively. While Tampa Bay's offense has twice tried to mount comebacks, the defense has kept Washington and Seattle without a second-half touchdown.
"They're a really good defense," said Hasselbeck. "They're fast, they're very well coached, and sometimes you have to be open. When the windows are closed, it causes you to be a little inaccurate. That happened to me today. They're just really well coached."
Tampa Bay's defense is working on its eighth straight season in the league's top 10 rankings, an amazing run. There were changes before this season, as Jermaine Phillips has taken over for John Lynch at safety and Anthony McFarland has moved over to under tackle to replace Warren Sapp. Still, the Buccaneers went into this season believing their defense was as deep and talented as ever.
And the plays have been coming from all corners. On Sunday against Seattle, Derrick Brooks had the Bucs only turnover, which is nothing new. But McFarland had two of the four sacks and defensive end Greg Spires played an inspired game, with six tackles, a sack and several other pressures. Linebacker Ian Gold nearly had an interception. Phillips made a few hits on running back Shaun Alexander that were reminiscent of Lynch. Defensive tackle Chartric Darby was tough up the middle, as Alexander got just 45 yards on 17 carries. And so on.
"We're back; the defense is back," said Spires. "We just can't worry about what's going on on offense and just keep pounding. We have to believe they're going to come around."
When they do – and there were encouraging signs on Sunday – the Bucs' defense might get even better. Tampa Bay has yet to play with a lead this season, has yet to 'pin its ears back,' as the saying goes. Considering how good the pass defense has been through two weeks (125 yards allowed to Washington, 126 to Seattle), it's frightening to think how good they could be when the opposing team is basically forced to put it in the air.
Then, maybe, the Bucs won't be burned by one big play.
"I think the defense as a whole did a good job keeping them off the board," said Spires. "They have a good offense and they have weapons over there. Sometimes it happens, and one play can hurt you."
The Seahawks may be off to greater things. They are a Super Bowl favorite in the NFC in many books. But they left Tampa with a healthy respect for what the Bucs' defense is capable of.
"That is a great defense," said tackle Walter Jones. "To come out with a win is great, but you have to give credit where credit is due. They gave us 10 points and didn't give us anything after that. The defense held up."
It seems it always will.