Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Stretch Run

Tampa Bay hits the middle of a three-week stretch of serious running back challenges

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LB Derrick Brooks is ready for Stephen Davis to bring the next rushing challenge

Three weeks into this NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had the league's fourth-best rushing defense, allowing just 73.7 yards per game. If your reaction to that stat is, 'three weeks doesn't determine anything,' then take a moment to look at the next trio of games on the Bucs' schedule.

It started last week with the New York Jets' Curtis Martin and it continues this Sunday in Washington with the Redskins' Stephen Davis. As if that weren't enough, Tampa Bay must then contend with the Vikings' Robert Smith the following Monday.

Those three backs are all in the league's top 12 in rushing and, worse, they come at you with markedly different games.

Martin was the do-everything weapon of which the Bucs were leery. A tough inside-outside runner with a burst for the corner and good hands in the passing game, Martin indeed was a handful in the Jets comeback 21-17 win. He ran for 90 yards, caught seven passes for 27 more yards and a touchdown and even threw the game-winning pass.

Davis is a battering ram with speed. The Redskins will pound at the middle of the Bucs' defense with their 235-pounder, and if he gets through the first line of tacklers, Davis has the speed to get big gains. He stands third in the NFC and fourth in the NFL with 372 yards and is the absolute definition of a workhorse back.

Smith is one of the quickest backs in the NFL. Probably the best of the three at getting around the corner, Smith has hurt Tampa Bay before with his speed to the outside. With the potency of the Vikings' passing attack, Minnesota will often spread out a defense then attack at the wider lanes with Smith. Smith ranks 12th in the league with 272 rushing yards.

That's a challenging series of tests for the Buccaneers, but Tampa Bay's defenders have put Martin's day behind them and have not yet contemplated how to stop Smith. The Bucs are focused on the task at hand, and it's a big one. Stop Stephen Davis or watch the Redskins get their high-powered attack in gear.

"I think they're going to come out and try to establish their running game, like any ballclub would with a great running back like Stephen Davis," said DT Warren Sapp. "That's our challenge, to get him under control and turn them into a one-dimensional offense."

Of course, that's the basic game plan for the Buccaneers' defense every week. It's just that it takes on an extra urgency when that first dimension is a player of Davis' caliber.

"Stephen Davis is a big, big guy who's running very hard, and everything kind of comes off of him," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "When he's running the ball well, that allows them to throw the play-action pass and get those deep, 17 to 20-yard passes in behind the linebackers."

Sapp gave the perspective on Davis from field level. "He's strong, he's fast, he hits the whole well and he runs behind a big offensive line," said Sapp. "What more do you want?"

Still, the Bucs didn't get to fourth in the league (now fifth) against the run as a fluke. Tampa Bay was fifth against the run last year as well, not to mention eighth in 1998 and sixth in 1997. Sapp and an active defensive line are backed rather capably by tackle-machine Derrick Brooks. Brooks feels good about the team's chances against Davis and the Redskins.

"Our speed matches up against their speed," said Brooks. "They're an offense that believes in the big play; we're a defense that doesn't allow the big play. So it's a chess match throughout the game. They've got a big, physical running back and we've got speed and quickness. It will be a power running game and a disciplined defense versus a big-play offense in the passing game." Like Martin last week, Davis can also catch the ball, having recorded 12 receptions for 119 yards so far this season. In fact, three of the Redskins' four leading pass-catchers are backs, with Larry Centers (14 receptions) leading the way and Davis and Adrian Murrell (12 each) tied for third. That would seem to hint at a repeat of last Sunday, when 14 of the Jets 24 receptions were made by running backs. Brooks, however, doesn't think the Redskins will rely on swing passes to the backs.

"If they do, we'll break up and make the tackle," he said. "Believe me, Washington's not looking to throw the ball to the running back. They're looking to get the ball downfield and if it's not there, then they dump it off to the running back. If they decide to do that, the underneath coverage just has to come up and make the play."

Tampa Bay contained Davis to the tune of 37 yards on 17 carries in last January's playoff game between the Bucs and the Redskins. However, Davis was slightly slowed by an ankle injury at the time. He is healthy now and ready to provide test number two for the Bucs' 2000 rushing defense.

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