- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 28, 2003

SAN DIEGO Jon Gruden was supposed to energize the lagging Tampa Bay offense. To do that, the fiery coach asked his fearsome defense for help.
When Gruden arrived from Oakland last winter, he challenged the Buccaneers' star-laden defense, telling them not to be content and setting a goal of nine defensive touchdowns to aid an offense adjusting to a new system and five new starters.
Sounds like an outlandish goal, right? The defense rose to the challenge with an NFL-best five touchdowns during the season, added another in the NFC Championship game and reached nine with a Super Bowl-record three scores.
"The strength of this team was clearly on the defensive side of the ball," Gruden said during a news conference yesterday, a day after the Bucs' 48-21 rout of the Raiders in Super Bowl XXXVII. "I challenged them to back up their excellence: 'Don't just be satisfied with turnovers and sacks. We want to score.'"
The vaunted defenses of the 2000 Baltimore Ravens, 1985 Chicago Bears and 1978 Pittsburgh Steelers which like the Bucs held their opponents below 200 points during 16-game seasons scored two touchdowns and a safety among them in Super Bowl victories.
"The [great] defenses of the past never faced the No. 1 offense in the Super Bowl," said Bucs linebacker Derrick Brooks, who had four of the scores during the season and another Sunday. "We accepted the challenge. … I have to put us up there as the greatest ever."
The Bucs' defenders didn't just shut down the Raiders' high-powered offense, led by regular-season MVP Rich Gannon and featuring do-everything halfback Charlie Garner and sure Hall of Fame receivers Jerry Rice and Tim Brown they outscored it. One of Oakland's touchdowns came on a blocked punt.
"We have been called paper champions and everything else under the sun, but we proved that we're one of the best ever," said All-Pro defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the NFL's defensive player of the year in 1999. Brooks won the award this season. "We played lights-out defense and won a championship. [That] puts us in the class with many other great defenses like … [Pittsburghs] Steel Curtain."
Seventh-year defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin called holding Oakland to three first downs, 62 yards and a field goal in the first half one of the most incredible performances he has seen.
"When we went in at halftime and it was 20-3, we felt like we had dug a hole for the Raiders' offense," Sapp said. "And when we dig a hole, we're very good at putting you in and throwing dirt on you."
So were all the other great defenses, but what separates the Bucs and the 2000 Ravens, who allowed a 16-game record-low 165 points and just 23 in four playoff victories is their speed.
"They all have incredible closing speed," Raiders fullback Jon Ritchie said. "That's something you can't really prepare for. Until you witness it, you can't believe anybody can get to the ball that fast."
Said Brooks: "That's the key to our defense. They can prepare for our schemes and where we're going to line up, but our speed and our togetherness is something you can't prepare for."
And with five-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch and middle linebacker Shelton Quarles the only defensive starters who will be over 30 next season and with Quarles, strong side linebacker Alshermond Singleton (a first-year regular) and free safety Dexter Jackson (the Super Bowl MVP) the only potential free agents the Bucs figure to keep that speed and togetherness for a while.
"We're not going to do anything but try to keep this defense and this team together," said Gruden, whose team should be able to keep its free agents because it's just $1.7 million over the $75 million salary cap. "We have a very good nucleus. We have some free agents that we need to sign, and I think there are a lot of eligible free agents who would like to be a part of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers."
Just as scary for the rest of the NFL, Tampa Bay's offense was playing its best football at the end of the year. The Bucs' 106 points combined in playoff victories over San Francisco, Philadelphia and Oakland were easily the most in a three-game stretch in team history. And only left tackle Roman Oben is eligible for free agency.
"The defense had a dominant season, and we expect that from them because of the type of people and continuity we have in that room," Gruden said. "But we plan on improving in all three phases. Our three playoff games clearly showed that we're on the right track [offensively]. Our goal is not to lead the NFL in total yardage [as Oakland did]. It's to win the Super Bowl."

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