Battle up front to decide who is first in line Super Bowl

January 26, 2003|By MIKE PRESTON

SAN DIEGO - Now that we've gotten through all the subplots like Jon Gruden vs. Bill Callahan, the Oakland geriatrics and the vagabond quarterbacks, and have heard from owners who still wear black leather jump suits (Al Davis) and who remind you of the Clampetts from The Beverly Hillbillies (the Glazers in Tampa), it's time to move on to the bottom line of Super Bowl XXXVII.

If the fat boys on Oakland's offensive line can snack on Tampa Bay like a good, old Philly cheese steak and eventually wear down the Bucs at the end of three quarters, the Raiders will win tonight. But if the Bucs can float, penetrate, stick and offset the Raiders' offensive rhythm, Tampa Bay will take home the Vince Lombardi Trophy for the first time in the franchise's less-than-glamorous 27-year history.

That's what this game is all about.

Oakland has the No. 1 offense and the biggest line in the NFL, averaging 6 feet 5 and 322 pounds. On most game days, quarterback Rich Gannon has had enough time to drink a cup of coffee, search for a video and then throw, racking up 4,689 yards this season.

Tampa Bay has the league's No. 1 defense because Simeon Rice was the best end in the league this season, Warren Sapp was the best tackle, linebacker Derrick Brooks keeps making big plays, and the disruptive Bucs run as well as any team.

Around 10 tonight, either the Bucs are going to be punch-drunk or the Raiders are going to be a bunch of tired, fat men from chasing them around.

"I like that. It sounds good. It sounds real good," Rice said. "It is going to be a game of epic proportions. There is no hiding the truth. It is going to be a war of attrition. They know us. We know them. They are the antithesis of what we are. It's going to be a chess match. It's the two bullies of this game at their best."

The Raiders have a prolific offense. They have veteran receivers Tim Brown and Jerry Rice, and an exciting No. 3 in Jerry Porter. And then they have Gannon.

"Gannon is a lot like a robot," said Gruden, the Bucs' coach. "He is like `The Terminator.' He has got a lot of different ways to destruct a defense. With his legs, with his arms, with his mind."

But this offense will only go as far as the offensive line will take it, and it has some pretty broad shoulders. Right tackle Lincoln Kennedy weighs 335 pounds, and right guard Frank Middleton checks in at 330. Center Barrett Robbins and left guard Matt Stinchcomb average 315. Left tackle Barry Sims is the runt at 300.

Two years ago when the Ravens played the Raiders in the AFC title game, Oakland was a smash-mouth team. This season, they have executed the art of pass blocking. Combined with Gannon's quick release, the Raiders have allowed only 38 sacks, including one or fewer in 10 games. Because there is no space to run inside the tackles, the Raiders have been able to bounce around defensive tackles like bumper cars.

Also, because Oakland relies on short passes and the line thrives on being able to single block, the Raiders can stay in three- or four-receiver sets and float the lone running back into passing routes. If Oakland succeeds and gets Tampa Bay out of its cover-two scheme in the secondary, the Raiders might be able to hit some big plays.

"It's a well-designed scheme," Sapp said. "We have to be able to get pressure with our front four. First of all, though, we have to take [running back] Charlie Garner out of the game because that guy is a monster. If they can run and become diversified, we could be in for a long day."

Said Kennedy: "With our size, we have been able to wear people down. We lay on people the entire game, and we just keep grinding whether we're running or passing. You have to prepare and slow Tampa Bay down. We have to be patient, because if you're too aggressive, they pounce on you and make you pay for a mistake."

The Bucs can't match Oakland's size, but Tampa Bay has superior speed. Linebackers Brooks and Shelton Quarles are so quick that most teams don't try to run outside. The Bucs also use a lot of stunts and twists inside with Sapp (303) and fellow tackle Chartric Darby (270). Sapp is considered the strongest run stopper of the two.

Because of the amount of games the Bucs sometimes play, which includes bringing strong safety John Lynch up on the line of scrimmage, Robbins, the center, has to be sharp in calling out the blocking assignments.

Another matchup that appears to work in Tampa Bay's favor is Simeon Rice against Sims. Miami Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor, a speed rusher like Rice, had three sacks against Sims earlier this season and forced two fumbles. Another interesting matchup has Sapp against Middleton. Middleton played the first four years of his NFL career in Tampa.

They used to practice against each other daily.

"It's going to be a great matchup," Middleton said. "It is going to be like old friends just having fun outside. It is like getting two fat boys in the ring, and whoever wins gets to eat."

Sapp countered: "We fought a lot of days, talked a lot of trash, grabbed and pushed and shoved. ... It's gonna be one of those games where the two big dudes meet in there, slap hands and go at it for 60 minutes."

Tampa Bay allowed an average of 97.1 rushing yards and only 196 points this season. But the Raiders aren't intimidated.

"They don't play defense like Baltimore," said Brown, referring to the Ravens of two years ago. "They don't play smash-mouth football or have guys who are 350-360 pounds up there. I don't see Tony Siragusa, Sam Adams. I don't see Ray Lewis. Ray Lewis is the kind of guy who is going to come in and try to intimidate you. They are good in their own way, but they don't intimidate anybody."

The Bucs' Rice, not to be outdone in this game of words known as the Super Bowl, said: "It's going to be a clash of the titans. It's time to bring it on. Whoever wins this game takes home the ultimate prize."

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