Bucs receiver Keyshawn Johnson says the Rams defense is playing well with the addition of CB Aeneas Williams
For many, the greatest joy of Thanksgiving is reuniting with family.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneer family is going to see one of its own this weekend. It remains to be seen whether that will be a joyful experience for the Bucs or not.
The Bucs play at St. Louis on Monday, which means much of the team's coaching staff will get an opportunity to see Lovie Smith, the Rams' defensive coordinator. From 1996 through 2000, Smith, as linebackers coach, helped the Buccaneers build their defense into perhaps the most feared unit in the league.
Surely, Head Coach Tony Dungy and other long-time assistants will be thrilled to meet up with Smith before the game. After kickoff, however, both will be looking to spoil the other's weekend.
That will be much more difficult for the Buccaneers' offense to accomplish this season, as Smith, with a healthy dose of new players, has helped turn the oft-beaten defense of the Rams' 9-7 team last year into the fourth-ranked unit in 2001. In turn, that has apparently helped return the Rams to their league-best form of 1999, when they ranked among the top 10 in both offense and defense.
"I think he's done well going and getting the players to play for him," said a former Smith charge, Pro Bowl Buc linebacker Derrick Brooks. "I think that's one of the things that probably goes unnoticed. Getting those guys playing and believing in the system and believing in themselves."
Smith's newcomers include former Bucs DE Chidi Ahanotu and LB Don Davis, but probably more significantly the defense has added CB Aeneas Williams, rookie S Adam Archuleta and former Ravens starting S Kim Herring, among others. It is apparent that the new Rams have bought into Smith's system, which is based on what he helped construct in Tampa.
"They obviously stole one of our assistant coaches who is doing a very good job for them," said Bucs' WR Keyshawn Johnson, who has had no trouble catching passes against any defense this season. "They have a very good defense. They are very fast up front. They seem to be playing well on film from what I can see. Their secondary, with Aeneas Williams, is playing solid. They are playing football. They can play that way because their offense puts points on the board and they can tell a team to pick their poison."
Indeed, that rebuilt Rams defense is holding opponents to just 287 yards per game, which contrasts nicely with the league-leading 424.4 yards the St. Louis offense is putting up per game.
"They've added some really good players," said Dungy. "They've added a great coach, who we're very familiar with and they are playing a different style than they're playing last year. They're really hustling and they're sound. It's tough to find cracks in what they're doing. I think the combination of new players and new system is really helping them."
Tampa Bay's offense is ranked just 21st in the league but is 10th overall in the passing game. The running attack, on the other hand, has only helped significantly in a couple of the first nine games. Dungy believes the Bucs will have to show more balance than that to beat Smith's defense.
"I think you are going to have to be able to do both," said Dungy. "They're a well-coached defense, really sound. You're not going to be able to go in there 'just' throwing or 'just' running."
Dungy says that Smith has put his own 'stamp' on the system that has worked so well in Tampa for six years, but that it will still look quite familiar to Tampa Bay's offensive players. That could be considered an advantage, unless the Bucs – or even the Rams – get caught in a Hamlet-like paralysis of thought.
"It's going to be one of those types of weeks, where I think both sides will say, 'Well, they know this so they might do this, but they know that we know this, so they might not do this,'" said Dungy. "Sometimes you can out-think yourself, and I'm sure he's telling his guys this and we're telling our guys this. You just have to go out and play, and read your keys and do what you should do. You shouldn't worry about what they know or what you think may happen."
As confident as always, the Bucs think they're going to find a way to succeed against a mirror of their own defense. The Rams offense is surely just as confident. The question is, who's going to be thankful after Monday night?