S John Lynch thinks he'll have a few chances to knock heads with RB James Stewart on Thursday
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ranked in the NFL's top three in overall defense each of the last three seasons, in the process allowing the fewest points in the league over that span. Without ranking number one in any given year, they were considered by many to be the best defense in the league.
As any dominant unit would, the Bucs' defense developed a bit of a swagger, a useful trait it carried into the 2000 season.
It lasted approximately 235 minutes.
Fifty-five minutes into the fourth game of the season, the 3-0 Buccaneers had allowed exactly 32 points and appeared to be headed to 4-0. That's when the New York Jets, also 3-0 at the time, exploded for two touchdowns with the aid of one Buccaneer turnover and stole a 21-17 victory. The Bucs haven't won since, and they've surrendered 20 points at Washington (in overtime) and 30 at Minnesota.
The Buccaneer defense has far from collapsed in the past three weeks, dipping only to sixth after facing two of the top seven offenses in the league. It's still first in the NFC in the red zone, first in the league on third downs and eighth in points allowed. The Bucs have forced six turnovers in their three losses, two of them returned for touchdowns.
But there's something missing, according to S John Lynch, and that something is swagger.
"We need to get our swagger back on defense that we had early in the season," said Lynch. "We had that going even through the Jets game until the last five minutes. We played a great game for 55 minutes but fell apart at the end. After that, it kind of felt like we had a week-long hangover."
And so, perfectly reasonable efforts in tough venues in Washington and Minnesota have left a bad taste in the Bucs' dry mouths. The cure, according to Lynch, is the type of dominant effort last seen in the Bucs' 31-10 win at Detroit on September 17. Fittingly, the Lions come to town on Thursday.
Lynch, considered the league's hardest-hitting safety, helped dissuade the Lions from running in the first matchup as the Bucs surrendered just 17 yards on 10 Detroit carries. Lynch had 11 tackles in Minnesota last Monday – "I finally got up there in double digits," he said – and looks forward to a chance to knock some more heads this week. Lynch firmly believes that the Lions will stick to the ground this time around.
"I don't know what they're going to do in the three-wides without Germane Crowell," said Lynch. "They like to spread you out with the three-wides and then run it at you. Stewart's not going to make you miss, but he runs hard and hits the hole quickly. Knowing Bobby Ross, they're going to run the ball, and if they're not successful at first, they're going to keep running it."
Believing that, will Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin deviate from the team's base 'cover-two' defense, which generally has both safeties deep over the middle, in order to clamp down on the run? "You would tend to think so, but with Monte, usually we do what we do," said Lynch. "Every week, if we can stop the run with the cover-two, then Monte would prefer to stay in that, then maybe run some zone dogs off it."
A zone dog is a kind of blitz generated out of the zone, and it sometimes involves Lynch himself. The Bucs have blitzed just about everybody on the starting 11 at one point or another this season, and Lynch wouldn't reveal who is slated to come this week, should the Bucs try to bring extra pressure on QB Charlie Batch.
"We've worked on some blitzes, but Charlie's sharp," said Lynch. "He picks up on it well, then audibles. Then (linebacker) Derrick (Brooks) switches us back out of the blitz, but sometimes he knows that and he dummies the audible. It's a cat-and-mouse game."
That's fine with Lynch, as long as the Buccaneers are the cat. Cats have been known to swagger, and that's something the Bucs have lost in recent weeks.
"But that's behind us now," said Lynch. "We need a win. Tony put it on the board today – it's been a month since we've won a game. It's a long time since that has happened to us. A win will cure everything."