Linebacker Derrick Brooks (55) and the Bucs' defense want to prove they're the top unit in the league
The Buccaneers did it first. The Ravens did it better.
Neither team is doing it quite as well this year, but both still believe they can do it better than the other.
Saturday night, we find out.
Depending on your take, last year's Super Bowl championship by the Baltimore Ravens was either reassuring or infuriating. The Ravens took the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' formula – swift and stingy defense, turnovers, strong running attack, play-action passing – and rode it all the way to the title, while the Bucs were losing in the first round of the NFC playoffs. And they did it right in Tampa Bay's own house.
This weekend, the Ravens come back to Raymond James Stadium, where they lifted the Lombardi Trophy over their heads last January, and two proud defenses will battle it out for supremacy.
Of course, Tampa Bay didn't exactly invent that scheme, but many of the defenders who have made the Buccaneers the league's poster boys for defense since 1997 are still on the scene and are eager to reclaim the title of Most Feared. Chances are, the Ravens, who some called the best defense ever during last year's amazing show, aren't willing to give it up.
"They had on of the all-time great years defensively last year in their Super Bowl run," said Bucs safety John Lynch, himself one of the Most Feared hitters in the league. "It's always a great measuring stick to put yourself up against a defense that has accomplished what they have. They take a lot of pride in that."
Could we just put both defenses on the field at the same time and heave a pigskin into the middle?
That's no slight on either team's offense – Baltimore is ranked 12th in the league on the offensive side of the ball and the Bucs have the NFL's 10th-best passing attack – but these are two defenses that would like the opportunity to match up man-to-man, if that were possible.
"I'd be foolish to sit here and tell you we haven't been looking forward to this game as a defense," said Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks. "They went out and won the Super Bowl playing great defense. We did the same thing in '99 but came up short. This year, we both still have good defenses, just not as dominant as they have been in the past. Of course, we're looking to go out there and perform well against their offense and show that we are the better defense.
"We definitely want to do that from the standpoint of giving our offense snaps at their defense. Our job is to limit their offense from scoring and scoring opportunities."
Both the Bucs and Ravens have found their stellar defensive pasts difficult to live up to. Baltimore has already surrendered 75 more points this season than they did all of last year, when they held opponents to a stunning 165 points in 16 games. In 1999, the Bucs extended a string of three straight years ranking in the league's top three in defense and were third in the NFL in points allowed.
Last year, though, the Bucs slipped to ninth in overall defense and this year, the Ravens have dropped down the charts a bit. Still, Saturday's game pits the league's sixth (Baltimore) and seventh (Bucs) ranked defenses and a handful of the game's brightest and most charismatic defensive stars. Warren Sapp. Ray Lewis. Derrick Brooks. Peter Boulware. Ronde Barber. Rod Woodson. Et cetera.
"We know we've got to go out and out-perform their defense, and specifically their secondary, from our part," said Barber. "They're a great football team. They came into this year kind of feeling like we felt in '99 when we had that great defense. They kind of fell off a little bit, but still, they've got a lot of dangerous players on their team. We can do what we can do on this side of the ball, on defense. If we play hard and fast and try to outplay their guys, we'll be alright."
The Bucs definitely played hard last Sunday, wiping out the New Orleans Saints, 48-21 at the same time the Ravens were tossing up another shutout against the Cincinnati Bengals. With so much at stake for both teams – each is chasing a Wild Card spot in their respective conferences – chances are playing hard won't be an issue on Saturday either. The key could be 'fast.' Tampa Bay's defense was built around speed, but that doesn't mean they would welcome a track meet with the Ravens defenders.
"I saw them first-hand at the Super Bowl last year, and I thought we were pretty fast," said Barber. "Those guys get to the ball, make plays to the ball, hustle to the ball, do everything that a coach wants them to do as hard as they can, every play. That's why they were so good last year. I haven't seen them much this year, so I don't know what the difference is, but I know what they're capable of."
He just doesn't want to see it in the Bucs' own house. Tampa Bay spent a good part of the middle of the year on the road, buying it three straight home games to end the regular season. Their inspired play against the Saints last weekend is an indication that they don't want to give that advantage up. They were also motivated by the arrival of another heralded defense – the Saints lead the league in getting to the quarterback – and that same motivation applies on Saturday.
"Once again, we're going to have that same challenge," said defensive end Steve White. "The Ravens present a lot of problems on defense, and so do we, so once again we've sort of taken the challenge as our defense against their defense."
And it's a challenge not of who had it first or who has done the most with it, but who has it right now.