Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Marshall Law

DT Warren Sapp lays down the central directive for his team: stop running back Marshall Faulk

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Warren Sapp, who's just as valuable against the run as he is in pass-rush situations, believes that slowing down Marshall Faulk is the key to stopping the Rams

In the coming weeks, expect the debate over the NFL's Most Valuable Player award to heat up. The award almost always goes to an offensive player, and some of the candidates being bounced around are quarterbacks Rich Gannon, Daunte Culpepper, Kurt Warner and Donovan McNabb, running back Robert Smith and wide receiver Randy Moss.

And then there is Marshall Faulk.

The St. Louis Rams' running back has put up eye-popping numbers, 1,796 total yards and 19 touchdowns among them. He has also missed several games due to knee surgery, and that fact has turned into perhaps the biggest argument for and against his candidacy. Faulk wasn't there for his team for the better part of a month, but the Rams' fortunes with and without him further emphasized his value.

Well, consider Warren Sapp convinced, for one. With the Rams set to hit Raymond James Stadium on Monday night for a critical NFC showdown, Sapp is eyeing Faulk as, if not most valuable, at least most dangerous. He believes the Bucs must first stop Faulk before they can contemplate shutting down the Rams' offense.

"He's the best back in the game, no doubt about that," said Sapp, who doesn't expect to complete stop the speedy runner. "I don't think 'stopping' is the word that you would use. 'Containment.' He's a heck of a player. For the dude to miss almost a month of the season and still have 1,796 total yards from scrimmage? He's a weapon. We've got to limit the big plays, keep the ball in front of us and tackle well, and we should be fine."

Like Derrick Brooks had mentioned earlier in the week, the Buccaneers do not mind that a successful shut-down of Faulk could lead to even more of an air assault by the league's best passing offense. ""We'll take our chances with that," said Sapp, who has led a team-record charge of 52 sacks with 13.5 of his own. "If they're going to release five guys and turn it into a throw-and-catch game, we'll take our chances with how we go out and play and how we rush the quarterback."

The Bucs' near-upset of the Rams in last year's NFC Championship Game is a clear and still-fresh example of how important it is to slow down St. Louis' do-it-all-back. Tampa Bay held Faulk to 49 total yards of offense, more than 100 below his regular-season average in 1999, and nearly pulled off a 6-5 upset before losing 11-6. How can the Bucs use that experience to prepare for this year's game? It's rather simple.

"Do the same thing," said Sapp. "Keep the ball in front of us. Eliminate the great Marshall Faulk – contain him. Contain the big plays. Keep the ball in front of us. Tackle well. Just go out and play our game. That's the biggest thing that we do any week. If we do that, we should be fine against anything that they try to do to us."

In part, that means tackling well, which is something the Bucs will need to do all over the field against the Rams. Much of St. Louis' offensive success comes after the ball is caught, whether it's by Faulk or any of its lightning-quick receivers. Tampa Bay's defenders closed quickly on the passcatchers in last year's game and played a very physical style of football.

"That's the one thing that we've got to hang our hats on," said Sapp. "You know, they're going to catch some balls, but we've got to come up and punish them and put hats on them. That's what we did so well in the playoff game. If these guys break a tackle, they're on the run. They've got bullets and they're going to be running up and down the field. That's the one thing we must do well, tackle, and that's the one thing we've always done well.

"You can't get them out in open space. If you get them out in open space, they're like roaches when the light comes on. They're everywhere."

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