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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lasting Impression

Tampa Bay’s defense is about to finish its ninth straight season in the top 10 of the league’s ranking, a streak that puts it among the best units in NFL history


The Bucs' defense is known for its speed and hustle to the ball

They've been around as long as The Titanic…the movie, not the submerged ship.

They've witnessed the entire rise and fall of the Backstreet Boys, and they predate the Pokemon craze by two years. Heck, Pamela and Tommy Lee were still together when they were first hitting their stride.

In the NFL, they've outlasted do-rags and Friday night inactive lists, and the Greatest Show on Turf. They've spanned eras from Reggie White to Dwight Freeney, from Barry Sanders to LaDainian Tomlinson. They witnessed the coming and going of Curtis Enis and Akili Smith (and maybe helped a little bit with that, too) and been around more than twice as long as the Houston Texans. There was no instant replay in the league when their run began, and NFL Europe was still known as the World League. John Elway still didn't have a ring.

In short, um, they've been around a long time.

In fact, in all of sports, has there been a force as consistent over the last decade as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense? Sure, there have been some – Lance Armstrong, Barry Bonds, Brett Favre, Andre Agassi, the Detroit Red Wings, Shaquille O'Neal to start a short list – but not many. If you've watched the NFL for just the last 10 years, there must be a few things you take for granted – Denver wins its home games, elite wide receivers preen after each touchdown, John Madden likes sound effects and the Pittsburgh Steelers lead with Bill Cowher's chin and Jerome Bettis' bulk.

Oh, and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers play good defense.

There have, in fact, been few defenses in the history of the NFL that have experienced the sustained excellence that has been seen in Tampa. Heading into the final weekend of the 2005 season, the Bucs are ranked second in the league in total defense, which is measured by yards. They are just 28 yards behind the Chicago Bears for the top spot, and even if they don't catch the Bears they will definitely finish in the league's top 10.

For the ninth consecutive year.

If you want to round it out to a full decade, the 1996 Buccaneers, in their first year in the system they still use today under Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin, finished 11th in the NFL, a huge jump from 27th the year before. That is, basically, a decade of top-10 dominance.

Obviously, all of the principles in those 10 years couldn't stay the same; players come and go at different parts of their careers. Hardy Nickerson was big in the early going; Simeon Rice has been a huge factor in recent years. Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber, still here, and John Lynch and Warren Sapp, since departed, are probably the four most significant across-the-span figures, but many others deserve mention, from Shelton Quarles to Donnie Abraham, Brad Culpepper to Brian Kelly, Anthony McFarland to Chidi Ahanotu.

It's not necessarily critical to get every single relevant name listed here, but the names are important. The "Tampa 2" scheme is obviously the linking factor between those 10 defenses, but it wouldn't work if it wasn't populated with the right men.

"We've had just get the right type of guys within the system," said defensive tackle Ellis Wyms. "A great coaching staff...and they bring in the right type of players that want to play hard and play fast and do the things necessary to make the defense good. One thing you can see through those 10 years is you turn on the film and guys are hustling, running to the ball, tackling. Just the fundamental things in the NFL, in the league, a lot of teams don't do. A lot of teams don't really stress the fundamentals, stress hustling, and stress just playing hard. I think that's the one common thread through these past 10 years, is that everyone just plays hard and does their job."

Defensive tackle Chris Hovan has been one of the latest additions to that legacy. He has played phenomenally well within that system, an indication that his talents are well-suited for what the Buccaneers do. But Hovan sees the team's lasting success on defense as more than the acquisition of talent.

"It's leadership, accountability and what they've put on tape," said the former Minnesota Viking. "They haven't talked about their defense. They've always had other people talk about them; 'Have you seen Tampa's defense?' What you watch on film, it's something that's been consistent for the last 10 years. It's been a privilege to play on this defense this year.

"We have great leaders. We have a very tight-knit group on this team. It just shows, on the field and off the field. So, when you have chemistry like that in the locker room, great things will happen."

Great things have been happening for a decade, and that's nearly unprecedented in the modern NFL. It's difficult to determine what the best single-season defense in league history has been. Such squads as the '86 Bears, the '00 Ravens, the '02 Buccaneers and the four Steelers teams that won Super Bowls behind the Steel Curtain can lay claim. It is not difficult, however, to determine which team has had the most sustained defensive success in this generation of the NFL. The Miami Dolphins could work into the argument, but the Bucs' streak and their impressive peaks in 1999 and 2000 surely give them the nod.

Here are the longest streaks of top 10 defensive ranking finishes in the NFL since the 1970 AFL-NFL merger. That cutoff is significant, because both leagues were much smaller before the merger and finishing in the top 10 wasn't nearly as impressive of an accomplishment.

Consecutive Top-10 NFL Defensive Rankings, 1970-Present

**Cons. Seasons****Team****Years**
9LA Rams1973-1981
8Tampa Bay1997-2004

Now, that list does not include the 2005 season, so the Bucs will soon be moving up on that list, into a tie for second with the Rams of the 1970s, those units led by Jack Youngblood, Hacksaw Reynolds, Merlin Olsen, Nolan Cromwell, etc. Should the Bucs keep their streak alive in 2006, they would be as consistently outstanding defense as the NFL has ever seen. They would match the Dallas crew that made lasting stars out of such players as Randy White, Cliff Harris, Harvey Martin, Mel Renfro, Hollywood Henderson, Bob Lilly and others.

One can't assume that 10th season of top-10 finishes of course, as likely as it may seem. Things can change rapidly in the NFL. Teams spiral up and down in the age of parity and today's media darling is forgotten a year later.

Then again, some things just seem like they are a given in the NFL.

Like the Tampa Bay Buccaneers playing good defense.

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