Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Last Stand

Tampa Bay’s hallmark defense saves one of its best performances for last

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CB Donnie Abraham provided outstanding run support all afternoon

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers left St. Louis on Sunday evening without the prize they had sought: the franchise's first Super Bowl berth. They did, however, leave knowing that their prized defense had proven itself the equal of the Rams' highly-touted offense.

St. Louis won the NFC Championship Game on Sunday with a hard-fought, defensively-dominated 11-6 victory. The Rams scored the only touchdown of the game on a 30-yard Kurt Warner-to-Ricky Proehl pass, but simply denying St. Louis access to the end zone for that long was remarkable. Over almost every measurable, the Buccaneers held the Rams defense to their lowest output of the season.

The simplest measure might be the most astounding. By scoring just 11 points, the Rams were held to exactly one-third of the point total they had averaged during the regular season, to speak nothing of the 49 points they dropped on Minnesota just one week before. In their nine previous home games (regular and postseason), the Rams had fed off the incredible noise of the Trans World crowd to score an average of 37 points per game and had never been held below 27.

By consistently making the first tackle and closing quickly on the Rams receivers, Tampa Bay was able to contain such explosive St. Louis weapons as RB Marshall Faulk and WR Isaac Bruce. The Rams mostly ran Faulk on counters and threw him short swing passes, but he was able to gain a total of just 49 combined yards. Compare that to his regular-season average of 152 combined yards per game. Most amazingly, Faulk gained a total of five yards on three receptions.

Bruce fared no better, gaining just 22 yards on three receptions. That's a far cry from a week ago, when Bruce picked up 73 yards and a touchdown on St. Louis' first play from scrimmage.

Unable to find Bruce open amid the Buccaneers' clamped-down secondary, Warner sent most of his passes the way of Proehl (six receptions for 100 yards) and Torry Holt (seven for 68). However, he was also hurried into three interceptions and was able to average just six yards per pass attempt, as opposed to almost nine during the regular season. Those numbers produced a single-game passer rating of 56.2 for Warner, light years below his near-record mark of 109.2 during the regular season.

St. Louis did end the day with 309 yards of total offense, but that was actually well below the team's regular-season average of 400.8. That was the Rams' second-lowest yardage of 1999 and by far their smallest output at home. Warner's game-winning pass to Proehl finally cracked the end zone for St. Louis, but they still were held to less than two touchdowns for the first time this season. They had been held to two just once and had never scored less than three TDs at home.

While these were all noteworthy accomplishments, the Buccaneers are note likely to be pouring over the stats page on Monday. The last-minute loss sucked most of the enjoyment out of the team's incredible defensive performance, though it makes it no less remarkable. With the defense likely to return virtually intact next season, Sunday's performance put the league on notice that the Buccaneer defense will fear no opponent in 2000.

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