5 Bucs Who Must Step Up On Defense

June 5 - Pewter Report editor-in-chief Scott Reynolds has identified five defensive players on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers who must step up their game this season. What do CB Brian Kelly, LB Shelton Quarles, DE Marcus Jones, LB Al Singleton and DT Warren Sapp have to do so that the Bucs defense can improve from its No. 6 ranking last year? Click here and find out.

Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com
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Pewter Report editor-in-chief Scott Reynolds takes a look at five Tampa Bay Buccaneers who must really step up their games on defense in 2002.

Kelly ousted Pro Bowl cornerback Donnie Abraham from the starting lineup last year thanks to superior play in run defense and some improvement in pass coverage. Then Kelly ousted Abraham from the roster when the Bucs decided to re-sign Kelly to a more cap-friendly contract than Abraham was under for the 2002 season. Abraham, who became Tampa Bay's all-time interceptor last season, was waived.

Keeping Kelly in favor of Abraham might seem risky, considering that the Bucs defensive coaches preach forcing turnovers and Abraham picked off six passes while Kelly didn't record a single theft last season. The team is expecting Kelly to have a breakthrough season much like Ronde Barber had during last year's Pro Bowl campaign. Barber, who entered the 2001 season with only six career interceptions, set a new club record with 10 picks.

Tampa Bay doesn't expect 10 interceptions out of Kelly this year, but would like him to set a new career high in 2002. Kelly has never intercepted more than one pass in any of his four years in the NFL. Not only does Kelly have to pick up some of the slack in the interception department for Abraham's departure, the Bucs can't count on Barber coming through with 10 picks again.

Kelly's progress has been slowed somewhat by a broken hand this spring. Kelly broke his hand during the Bucs' first mini-camp in April in a freak collision with receiver and good friend Keyshawn Johnson. His hand will be healed in time for his full participation in training camp, and he'll need both hands to snag as many passes as he can in August. The team has high hopes for second-year corner Dwight Smith, who saw very little playing time on defense last year, but is a ballhawk in practice who comes up with interceptions. Smith will push Kelly to greatness -- or out of his starting job.

Not only does Quarles have the pressure of learning a new position to contend with in his move from the strongside linebacker to the middle linebacker position, he will have to perform better than Jamie Duncan, who was the Bucs' starting middle 'backer for the last two seasons. Why? For the Bucs defense to improve from sixth in the NFL last year to get into the top 3, the team needs better play from the middle linebacker.

Duncan came through with some interceptions at times, but didn't cause as many fumbles and make as many timely tackles as his predecessor, Hardy Nickerson, did. Quarles hasn't been a big-play machine as Tampa Bay's strongside linebacker either, which has some fans worried about his transition to the middle of the defense.

The athletic Quarles did come on last year with a 98-yard interception return for a touchdown against Green Bay and a key sack of QB Mike McMahon in a narrow home win against Detroit. But at 225 pounds, does he have the size and strength to shed centers and guards and still maintain his gap? The Bucs coaches think so, but with only Nate Webster behind him, Quarles better not disappoint.

The success or failure of the Bucs defense could rest on the shoulders of No. 53. Quarles is also in a contract year and has everything to play for.

After a breakthrough year in 1999 when he recorded seven sacks and a command performance in 2000 when he notched 13, the Bucs thought Jones had finally had the light bulb come on. But after registering three sacks in a disappointing season as the team's full-time left end, Jones seemed to regress to the days when he was labeled a "bust" by fans and the media.

Jones was bothered by a nagging shoulder injury which limited his effectiveness, and a position switch. Jones had recorded most of his 13 sacks from the right defensive end spot as opposed to the left side. The fact that the left defensive end is called on to contain the quarterback more often than the right end side, which is typically allowed to rush the passer, also contributed to his lower than usual sack numbers.

But Jones is clearly on the hot seat this year, hitting the Bucs' cap for $3.75 million. If he can't become a consistent performer on the left side, the team might try Greg Spires there next year or start over and address the position in either free agency or the draft.

Tampa Bay hopes that a clean bill of health will make all the difference for Jones, who was the Bucs' No. 1 pick in 1996. The thought of an effective Jones opposite the dangerous Simeon Rice on passing days would make quarterbacks dread playing the Bucs.

Moving Quarles to the middle of the Bucs defense allowed Singleton, a long-time special teamer, to finally crack the starting lineup. Singleton has been used sparingly as a backup to Quarles throughout the years, but has made his mark on special teams as one of the unit's top tacklers.

Singleton has good quickness and instincts and must not allow a drop-off at the position in order for the Bucs defense to show any improvement over last year's unit. He has proven to be solid in pass coverage and run defense, but must prove he can handle both duties over 50 snaps a game instead of 15.

The strongside linebacker spot is a role which is not really designed to be an impact position. Still, Singleton must be able to force turnovers. He has just one interception and one forced fumble on his pro resume`.

The Bucs have had a lot of turnover at the strongside linebacker spot over the years from Lonnie Marts to Rufus Porter to Jeff Gooch to Quarles and now to Singleton. Singleton, who is in a contract year, must prove he can hold down the job or the Bucs will have to turnover the position once again.

Was last year an aberration or the beginning of the end for Sapp's career? We're banking on the former. Sapp played last year with a torn rotator cuff, yet concealed the injury because he was afraid opponents would use the information against him and target his bad shoulder.

Sapp insists he had a strong year last year, but the numbers don't lie. His six sacks was much lower than expected, especially since he boasted that he would break the NFL's sack record last year.

Sapp seems to live by a "me against the world" philosophy, and with him catching so much flak over last year's disappointing season, you can bet that a healthy Sapp will be out for vengeance and to prove his critics wrong.

With Rice really catching fire over the second half of the season last year, Sapp might benefit from more one-on-one blocking as opponents may choose to fortify the flanks instead of the interior part of the line where Sapp lines up.

Sapp has the ability to carry the Bucs defense when he is on his "A" game. Unfortunately, his "A" game was only on display against St. Louis last year. The fact that Sapp will likely ask for a contract extension complete with one more big signing bonus after this season is motivation for a huge year.

All PewterReport.com photos are courtesy of Pewter Report director of photography Cliff Welch unless noted otherwise

Copyright 2002 Pewter Report/PewterReport.com

This story is intended to be read only by PewterReport.com Club Insiders only and TheInsiders.com. Sharing of the Club content with non-subscribers of this service can result in cancellation of your subscription to the service and/or further actions by the publishers.

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