DT Warren Sapp will be at the heart of the key battle on Sunday
If you think, like Warren Sapp does, that Kevin Mawae is the best center in the NFL, then the Bucs' interior defensive linemen might be in for a tough battle.
If you think, like NFL voters did last year, that Warren Sapp is the best defensive player in the league, then the Jets interior offensive linemen should be ready for a serious skirmish as well.
Throw in Randy Thomas, one of the league's rising young stars at offensive guard, and Anthony McFarland, a Sapp clone coming off a 2.5-sack game, and now you're talking about the battle that may determine the war. The Bucs face the Jets on Sunday with a 4-0 record for one team on the line, and the crew that remains undefeated will probably be the one that controls the line of scrimmage.
"They're very strong inside," said Dungy. "They have aggressive players that want to force the action at the point of attack."
That's the common point of view on the Jets' offense, which ranks 10th in the league and has allowed only two sacks in three games. Besides Mawae and Thomas, the Jets have the developing Kerry Jenkins at left guard, and these players like to take the action to the defense.
"The first thing I watch is how they come off the ball, their pad level and their feet," said Sapp. "Most linemen, when they stop you, their feet stop, and that allows you to recover and get your pass rush started again. These guys keep their feet moving and keep driving you. You don't get 70 carries in three games if you're not doing that."
At the end, Sapp is referring to the workhorse detail of running back Curtis Martin, simply one of the best and most durable backs in the NFL. In his first two seasons with the NFL, Martin averaged 24 carries per game and has already had outings of 30 and 29 totes this season. Will the Jets abandon the run, as the Detroit Lions did last Sunday, if it's not working after five or 10 carries? Not a chance.
"They're committed to giving the ball to Curtis Martin," said Sapp. "That's the engine in their car."
Martin pounded out 84 yards on 29 carries last Sunday against Buffalo and scored one of the Jets' three touchdowns on a tough carry on fourth-and-one.
"They played well against a very good defense last week," said linebacker Derrick Brooks, who will be around to clean up whatever gets past the team's superb tackles. "This will be our strongest test so far. We're going to have to take out a very good tailback running behind a good offensive line." "If we keep Curtis Martin under control," concludes Sapp, "our chance of winning goes up by 70 percent."
That's because an opponent that can't run against the Buccaneers suddenly finds itself inside the thresher that is the Tampa Bay pass rush. And that rush starts up the middle, as it did in Detroit, where Sapp and McFarland combined for a devastating 5.5 sacks of QB Charlie Batch.
Sapp is tied for the league lead with 5.5 QB takedowns through three games, but that doesn't mean Mawae, Thomas and Jenkins can put all their attention on him. "In Detroit," said Sapp, "they started double-teaming me late in the game and then Anthony went off for two-and-a-half sacks."
McFarland's emergence and the defense's league-leading 18 sacks is putting the wisdom to the Bucs' preseason decision to part ways with longtime DT stalwart Brad Culpepper.
"Brad Culpepper was a real seasoned player, and you can't change that or replace it," said Sapp. "But Anthony is a better one-on-one pass rusher. You can't double-team me and leave him alone. Pick your poison."
Sapp also believes that the Bucs can keep the pressure on their excellent interior adversaries by keeping the defensive line fresh through substitution. Sapp and McFarland are spelled by Tyoka Jackson and James Cannida and starting ends Chidi Ahanotu and Marcus Jones get a rest from Steve White.
"We're seven deep, we're interchangeable parts," said Sapp. "We don't miss a beat when someone cycles in. We always say, 'Rush until your heart blows up, then rush one more time.'"
Still, the Bucs' strength up the gut is special because of the presence of the league's defending NFC Defensive Player of the Year. "When Warren's humming, the whole defense is humming," said Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin. "When he gets a big play early, the whole defense gets going."
Expect the Jets to do whatever they can to stop that and keep QB Vinny Testaverde as well-protected as he has been throughout the season. With the pressure being generated in the middle and the Bucs' continued success on blitzes, the Jets may keep their formations tight to keep Tampa Bay out of its backfield.
"We're expecting max protection from these guys, keeping the tight end in so it's six on four," said Sapp. "But we've experienced that before."
Sapp and Mawae, two of the best at their respective NFL jobs. They may not line up directly on each other very often on Sunday in Raymond James Stadium, but each anchors a unit that has drawn real respect from the other. It is certain that both groups will be primed for the test.
"If you're not ready for every challenge presented to you, someone's going to come out and put it to you," said Sapp. "People look for a challenge to motivate their ballclub. They see a good team coming and they see a chance to get their season going."