- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 8, 2004

Most of the focus for Sunday’s Tampa Bay-Washington season opener is on the Redskins’ offense and how similar it will be to the one coach Joe Gibbs ran so well during his previous tenure.

Generally overlooked is that the Redskins aren’t matching up with just any defense. The Buccaneers won the Super Bowl following the 2002 season on the strength of the NFL’s best defense, the first in 17 years to surrender the fewest points and yards and intercept the most passes. And though the team’s record crashed to 7-9 last season, the defense still ranked fifth overall and third against the pass.

“I know Dallas was rated first last year, but I think we’re going against the top-rated defense,” Gibbs said. “They’ve consistently been at the top of the league on defense. It will be a real challenge for us.”

Although the Bucs allowed seven-time Pro Bowl tackle Warren Sapp and five-time Pro Bowl safety John Lynch to depart via free agency, their defense doesn’t figure to be drastically different. Fourth-year man Chartric Darby has taken over for Sapp, and Jermaine Phillips has become a regular at safety after splitting time in 2003.

The only new starter who wasn’t with the team last season is linebacker Ian Gold, a free agent from Denver who’s more talented than predecessor Nate Webster as long as his surgically repaired right knee doesn’t relapse.

Pro Bowl defensive end Simeon Rice said he’ll miss the aging Sapp and Lynch more as people than players.

“The mainstays that we have who have really produced — myself, Brooks, Ronde — are all back,” Rice said. “We’ve got the energy. We’ve just got to continue to evolve as a team. We’re going to be as good as we’ve ever been, but we have this Sunday to find out.”

If Sapp and Lynch were more leaders than elite players by last year, that’s not the case with seven-time Pro Bowl linebacker Derrick Brooks and top cornerback Ronde Barber.

“We have to prove that we can overcome the loss of two great players and that’s not going to be easy … but I don’t believe there’s a shortage of leadership if you’ve met Derrick Brooks, Ian Gold, Ronde Barber or [linebacker] Shelton Quarles,” coach Jon Gruden said. “We’ve got a really excited group of defenders that are much faster than we have been.”

Few ends are as fast as Rice, whose career average of 11.6 sacks a season leads all active players. Four of those sacks came last Oct.12 at Washington when faulty pass protection schemes left a tight end or a running back trying to block Rice singlehandedly.

“Simeon’s very fast, and he’s deceivingly strong [at a comparatively light 268 pounds],” said Redskins Pro Bowl tackle Chris Samuels, who was partly responsible for a couple of Rice’s sacks in 2003 and is out to avenge that performance Sunday. “He’s one of the best. You’ve got to be ready on every snap because he can bring it. I have my work cut out for me.”

Samuels isn’t the only member of Washington’s offense feeling that way. Guard Randy Thomas said the Bucs are faster up front minus Sapp. And offensive line coach Joe Bugel shook his head when talking about the Bucs’ pervasive speed on defense.

“They fly to the football,” Bugel said. “They’ve got tremendous team speed. Their linebackers are like bazookas. When they hit you, they’re going to put a sting on you. They were number one in the preseason. That’s not by chance. They’ve got a great scheme.

“You talk about a guru of defense, [coordinator] Monte Kiffin is the epitome of that. When they reload, they reload with great players. There’s not a drop-off on their defense. That’s why it’s pretty quiet around here. We know what we’re getting into. It’s a buzzsaw.”

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