The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense of the mid-'90s and the 2000s is considered one of the best of its generation, perhaps one of the best of all time. In the ultimately irresolvable debate over which defense is actually the best, the Buccaneers (and especially their defenses of 1999 and 2002) are often compared with the 2000 Baltimore Ravens or the 1985 Chicago Bears.
And the Pittsburgh Steelers. Always the Steelers.
In NFL circles, Pittsburgh has long been synonymous with defense. It may be that no franchise can match the ongoing tradition of the Steel Curtain and its descendants, but of course that is not particularly relevant to the 2010 Tampa Bay Buccaneers. What is relevant is that that the Steelers are once again bringing one of the league's most fearful defenses to Raymond James Stadium. Also relevant: On the Raymond James home sideline will be a new-generation Buccaneers defense that believes it can stand toe-to-toe with its Pittsburgh counterpart.
Ask a defensive player about facing the opposing team's defense, and in most weeks he'll remind you that he will actually be matched up against that team's offense. But in the lead-up to a game many expect to be a low-scoring slugfest, a battle of defensive wills, Buccaneer defenders don't bother to change the subject.
"They're playing some really good football," said defensive end Stylez G. White. "It's going to be a challenge for us, not only taking on their offense but to see who's playing better defense."
As the Buccaneers' defense did for many years, the Steelers benefit from a great continuity of scheme and leadership. Long before the 3-4 defensive front regained a major foothold in the league, the Steelers had perfected both its execution and the ability to restock it with the right type of players. Dick LeBeau is in the seventh season of his second tour of duty on the Steelers' staff and is one of the most respected defensive coordinators in the league. And LeBeau now works for Mike Tomlin, who began his own defensive tradition with the Buccaneers team that won Super Bowl XXXVII.
Tomlin was the defensive backs coach on that team, and he was assisted by Raheem Morris, who has since ascended to the Buccaneers head coach's office. Since November of last season, Morris has also been Tampa Bay's defensive coordinator, and he has put the Buccaneers back on the path towards defensive dominance. In fact, since Morris put on the DC hat in Week 11 of 2009, the Buccaneers have allowed fewer than 16 points per game over an eight-game stretch.
This year, the Steelers are tied for first through two weeks with 20 points allowed and the Bucs are third, one point behind. The Buccaneers also want to be compared to Pittsburgh in the manner in which the two teams approach defense and winning football games.
"The way Pittsburgh's won for years is they've protected the ball and relied on their defense to force turnovers and make big plays," said linebacker Barrett Ruud. "Especially now, when there's so much uncertainty with the quarterback situation, they're putting a lot on their defense and their defense has, for about the 20th straight year, responded. It's a challenge for us to play against an elite defense."
Added White: "Their defense, they make it look easy, and that's what we're setting up ours as. We want to see how we fare when we go head to head."
In Week Two, the Buccaneers sacked Carolina quarterback Matt Moore four times, forced three turnovers, didn't commit a giveaway of their own and won 20-7. Meanwhile, the Steelers sacked Tennessee passers four times, forced seven turnovers, committed just one giveaway of their own and beat the Titans, 19-11.
Similar approaches, similar results so far. Will the efforts by the two defenses once again be similar on Sunday, when they're sharing the same field?
"Defensively, it's fun because they're a premier defense and they have been for a long time," said Ruud. "Dick LeBeau is historically one of the better D-coordinators ever. It will be fun to try to match up. They've been playing really well and kind of single-handedly winning games. It will be a big test for our offense and for us."
Steelers linebacker James Harrison, the 2008 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, was chosen as the AFC's Defensive Player of the Week in Week Two after his two sacks and two forced fumbles helped Pittsburgh down Tennessee, 19-11. He and fellow linebacker LaMarr Woodley – the two outside pass-rushers in Pittsburgh's 3-4 front, combined for 51 sacks in 2008 and 2009. Nose tackle Casey Hampton, the 325-pound anchor to the front line, continues to clog up the middle for a defense that has allowed just 52 rushing yards per game so far. Playmakers like Troy Polamalu and Ryan Clark roam the secondary waiting to make game-changing plays when the opposition is forced to pass.
"You can't help but look at the Steelers over the years and talk about their physical presence," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "You look at them know when you study offensive tape and you see all the pass-rushers and the different types of players coming at you, from hybrid positions and things like that. They've got a team full of them. You talk about their whole defense…man, they've got a good defense. They're all out there and they have fun. They play the game the way you want it to be played. We respect those guys, but we don't fear them."
Lloyd Brings Tough Mentality
Raheem Morris and Mike Tomlin, the two head coaches who will lead their teams into action on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, are both graduates of the NFL's Minority Coaching Fellowship Program. Like Lovie Smith and Herm Edwards before them, Morris and Tomlin used the door opened by that program to rise all the way to the top of their shared profession.
Greg Lloyd has started down that same path.
This summer, Lloyd assisted the Buccaneers' coaching staff during training camp, along with several other interns, through the Fellowship Program. The thing is, it's now late September, training camp is well in the past, and Lloyd is still spending his days at One Buccaneer Place.
That's because Lloyd impressed Tampa Bay's coaching staff enough to earn a more permanent spot with the team. After the conclusion of the preseason, the Buccaneers hired the former NFL linebacker to serve as a defensive assistant on their coaching staff.
Of course, Lloyd has additional ties to Sunday's game besides the coaching roots he shares with Morris and Tomlin. The majority of Tomlin's 11-year playing career was spent in Pittsburgh, where he was a big part of that aforementioned defensive tradition.
Lloyd played 10 seasons with the Steelers, appearing in 131 games with 125 starts and racking up 53.5 sacks, 10 interceptions and 34 forced fumbles. His sack total ranks fifth in franchise history and he was a five-time Pro Bowl selection and three-time first-team all-pro. He was also, for many years, one of the emotional leaders for a defense that often ranked among the league's best.
Morris believes Lloyd can import that same attitude to his own young players.
"Greg Lloyd's made an impact since he's been here," said Morris. "His impact has been a lot about mentality. He's learned a lot from us. We're lucky and fortunate enough to be around a guy like Greg Lloyd every day."
Lloyd said his own approach to playing the game was shaped by the culture he encountered within the Steelers organization.
"It's attitude – Day One when you walk in there," he recalled. "The first person I got a chance to meet was Joe Greene. Then some time later you get to meet guys like Jack Lambert. You step up to the plate because you want to be as good as those guys and build your own legend. You want to compete, you want to play at the level those guys played at but you want to do it your own way. We tried to play at a level where, when we talked to those guys, they said, 'Hey, man, I like the way you guys are playing.' That's what it's all about.
"It's blue-collar football, it's blue-collar mentality there. They don't like the flashy stuff. They like guys who bring their lunch to work and come to work hard. They're not going to talk stuff, they're going to talk with their shoulder pads. Things haven't changed. That's how they do it."
That said, Lloyd's time with the Steelers, which ended in 1997 (he played one final season for the Carolina Panthers) is not likely to have much impact on the Bucs' preparations for Sunday's game. The personnel has changed in Pittsburgh, obviously, as has the head coach. Lloyd's value to the Buccaneers will be felt equally during the 16 games of the season.
"Our job is to worry about us," he said. "We're just going to worry about us and take care of our business, and I'm pretty sure they're going to do the same thing on their end.
The Buccaneers began their week of practice on Wednesday without the services of their starting center, Jeff Faine. Faine is suffering from a calf injury but the team hopes he will return to action before the week of practice is up.
"Jeff Faine did not practice today," said Morris. "He'll be day-to-day but I'm hopeful will get all those guys back for the game."
Morris referred also to linebacker Niko Koutouvides, who missed Wednesday's practice with an ankle injury, and running back Cadillac Williams, who was limited due to a hamstring strain. Koutouvides sustained his injury last week and was not able to play in the team's game at Carolina on Sunday.
Three other Buccaneers were listed on the injury report but were able to practice without limitations: quarterback Josh Freeman (thumb), running back Kareem Huggins (groin) and tight end Kellen Winslow (knee). Winslow is sometimes given Wednesday off as part of a normal procedure to keep his knee in good shape for Sundays, but he was on the field on Day One of practice this week.
"He's a mentally tough man," said Morris of Winslow. "We know Kellen Winslow loves to practice. He wants to go out there and be a part of it. If he needs to sit out, something's going on or we need to hold him back and be smart as an organization, we will be. We get him to Sundays. That's the most important thing."
The Steelers' injury report was relatively short, though it obviously includes their starting quarterback from the first two games, Dennis Dixon. Dixon sustained a knee injury against Tennessee on Sunday and the Steelers have already announced that he will not play against the Buccaneers. Charlie Batch, who finished Sunday's game against Tennessee, is said to be the front-runner for Sunday's start.
Guard Trai Essex, who started Pittsburgh's first two games at right guard, also did not practice on Wednesday after spraining his ankle in the Tennessee game. Defensive tackle Casey Hampton (hamstring) and tackle Max Starks (ankle) are both listed on the Steelers' injury report but were able to participate fully in practice on Wednesday.