Bucs' defense gets its `Curtain' call

NFL: Tampa Bay has a role model in the 1974 Pittsburgh Steelers, who won their first Super Bowl that season with a big hand from a dominating defense.

January 19, 2000|By Vito Stellino | Vito Stellino,SUN STAFF

It would be a perfect millennium matchup that the video wizards at NFL Films could put together by pitting teams of different eras.

Imagine having this season's St. Louis Rams with their pinball-machine offense averaging 36 points a game, going against the Pittsburgh Steelers' Steel Curtain defense of 1974 that gave up an average of 13.5 points a game and won the first of the franchise's four Super Bowls.

That defense had four Hall of Famers and 10 starters who went on to make 52 Pro Bowl appearances.

Fortunately for the Rams, who play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC title game Sunday, they don't have to face that defense to win their first Super Bowl.

But the Rams might make a mistake if they underrate the Bucs' defense, even though St. Louis is a two-touchdown favorite.

That's because the Tampa Bay coach, Tony Dungy, is a former Steelers defensive back who looks at the Bucs' defense and is reminded of the Steelers' defense of 1974.

Dungy should know. He arrived in Pittsburgh as an undrafted college quarterback converted to defensive back in 1977, and in that era before free agency, most of the players from the 1974 team were still there. He said he has watched films of that team "hundreds of times" and it may not be a coincidence that he has built a defensive-oriented team.

"You see a guy like Derrick Brooks, who can run and has great striking power, and you think, `That's Jack Ham.' You see a guy like Warren Sapp, a big man who can get off the ball and make an impact, and you think, `That's Joe Greene,' " he said.

The statistics of the two teams are remarkably similar. The Steelers ranked first in yards allowed and second in points allowed. The Bucs were third in both categories. While the Steelers gave up 13.5 points a game, the Bucs gave up 14.7.

Dungy isn't trying to say the Bucs' defense is identical. He annoyed some of his players last week when he was asked to compare the teams position by position by a St. Petersburg, Fla., columnist.

He said defensive tackles Ernie Holmes and Brad Culpepper were a draw and gave an edge to three of his players -- Donnie Abraham over J. T. Thomas at one corner, John Lynch over Mike Wagner at safety and Hardy Nickerson over Jack Lambert at middle linebacker. He stressed he meant "at that stage of Lambert's career," because he was a rookie that year.

He gave the Steelers the edge at the other seven positions, but said Greene had only a "slight edge" over Sapp and Ham a "little edge" over Brooks. Considering the fact that Greene and Ham are in the Hall of Fame, it was almost a compliment for Sapp and Brooks when Dungy called it that close.

Dungy, though, admitted his players needled him about giving the Steelers the edge.

"They gave me some grief on that one. We watched film the next day at practice and a guy would knock a pass down [and one of his players would say], `Oh, Lambert would have had that,' " he said.

The Bucs' defense is playing at a high level. It has gone 10 quarters without giving up a touchdown while playing against the league's second-, eighth- and ninth-ranked offenses -- Washington, Chicago and Green Bay.

By contrast, St. Louis has played against only one of the league's top 12 defenses -- the second-ranked Ravens in the opener. In that one, the Rams led only 17-10 after three quarters before scoring 10 points in the final period.

The Bucs' defense held Washington's offense to two field goals and 157 yards on Saturday, including 26 in the second half, with a scheme that is similar to St. Louis' because offensive coordinator Mike Martz was the Redskins' quarterbacks coach last year. Afterward, Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin was beaming.

"We could have played for three days, the Redskins weren't going to beat us, not with the mind-set our defense was in," Kiffin said. "Even if they don't screw up the snap [on a late field-goal attempt], I guarantee it would have hit the goal post and bounced back and been no good. Or if they had made it, we would have come back down and scored.

"I told them that since we came here in '96, that's the most complete football game that we've played. It was a clinic on giving the run fits and it was a clinic on heart and guts and soul."

The problem for the Bucs comes when they have the ball. Even if they slow down the Rams' defense, they'll have to find a way to score against the Rams' sixth-ranked defense. That's where the comparison with the Steelers of the '70s seems to break down. The fans remember Terry Bradshaw throwing to Lynn Swann and John Stallworth.

But Swann and Stallworth were rookie backups in 1974 and the Steelers won on defense and running the ball. In the AFC title game in Oakland, they held the Raiders to 29 yards rushing in a 24-13 win and intercepted Ken Stabler three times. In the 16-6 win in Super Bowl IX, they held the Minnesota Vikings to 17 yards rushing and intercepted Fran Tarkenton three times.

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