Saturday, August 14, 2004

Bucs upbeat about down defense

Linemen step up to replace Sapp

Enquirer news services

Tampa Bay Bucs defensive tackle Ellis Wyms was sitting on his couch when a little head on his TV screen began talking to him.

Talking about how the Bucs weren't a threat. Talking about how the defense had gone soft.

"It was (Carolina's) Brentson Buckner," Wyms said, curling his lip in disgust. "He was on 'Fact or Fiction' on ESPN, and they asked him if the Bucs would be a problem in the NFC South. And he just said: 'Frankly, no. Their defensive line is going to be soft this year,' and 'They can't stop the run.'

"I think that's what most of our league thinks right now."

Wyms isn't far off. With Warren Sapp in Oakland, the common assumption is Tampa Bay's defensive line has a celestial hole. But this Sapp-less unit is drawing comparisons to Tampa Bay's dominant defensive lines from the late 1990s.

This is a line without Sapp, who had only 36 tackles and five sacks last season but still drew consistent double-teams. Tampa Bay basically has what it had last season, when it finished a lukewarm 13th in rushing defense, minus a future, but fading, Hall of Famer.

"We've got the most talented group we've had since 1997," defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. "Without a doubt. Now, what we do on the field, that's yet to be seen. But if you look from top to bottom, it's not even close."

Wyms was inclined to take it a step further, proclaiming, "We're going to be great this year. Great. There won't be a group of defensive linemen in the league better than us. Even Carolina or up in Philly, where they have (Jevon) Kearse and Corey Simon."

A stretch? Only if training camp is a mirage. Approaching mid-August, the defensive line has arguably become the Bucs' biggest strength, largely through the development of younger players such as Wyms and end Dewayne White. That pair, along with DeVone Claybrooks and former Bengal Reinard Wilson, are expected to provide a robust rotation of backups.

At times, Wyms has even outshone McFarland, and White has begun to transform into the leaner, faster end the organization envisioned when it drafted him in 2003.

"When they're all together out there, it's an imposing bunch," coach Jon Gruden said. "They can rush the passer; Rice and McFarland and (Greg) Spires and (Chartric) Darby, they're coming after us. Dewayne White is emerging, and we like a lot of the things Ellis Wyms has done."

Whether the group can make up for Sapp's departure is another matter. He was the face and voice of the defense, and the offseason has been rife with questions about what his leaving would mean.

"What does perception get you? Nothing," McFarland said. "I deal with facts. I'm a reality guy."

The reality last year was that McFarland was left with a defensive front that struggled, unable to stop drives in losses to Carolina (twice), New Orleans and Indianapolis. The team surrendered rushing performances of more than 100 yards five times, losing those games.

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