Flowers, who took offense to the media pre-game attention that the Bucs defense was getting rather than the Steelers defense, felt Tampa Bay talked a big-man game but was unable to back it up on the field.

"> Flowers, who took offense to the media pre-game attention that the Bucs defense was getting rather than the Steelers defense, felt Tampa Bay talked a big-man game but was unable to back it up on the field.


Carolina Notes

PITTSBURGH - After the Steelers defeated Tampa Bay, 17-10, midway through last season, Pittsburgh safety Lee Flowers proclaimed that the Buccaneers were "paper champions".<p> Flowers, who took offense to the media pre-game attention that the Bucs defense was getting rather than the Steelers defense, felt Tampa Bay talked a big-man game but was unable to back it up on the field.<p>

A year later, the Bucs defense is still getting all the publicity while, until a recent three-game stretch, a Steelers defense which was No. 1 a year ago has spent much of the season getting torched.

But with the past three games the Steelers defence has allowed only 404 total yards, and in four weeks they've risen from the 20th-rated unit in the NFL to their current ranking of third in the league behind second-rated Miami and those "paper champion" Buccaneers.

"We're doing the things that made us successful last season," said linebacker Kendrell Bell. "We know what teams are going to try to do against us and now we know how to beat it. This is the time of year when you have turn it up another notch."

While the Steelers (8-5-1) have turned it up a notch in recent weeks, the Bucs (11-3) have played consistently well on defense all season long.

And despite Flowers' "paper champions" remark of last season, the Steelers are giving Tampa Bay all the respect in the world as they prepare for yet another crucial game with the Bucs at Raymond James Stadium next Monday night.

"They are a real good football team," Steelers head coach Bill Cowher said of the Bucs. "Last year was last year and this year they have proven they are the real deal."

Tampa's defense, led by linemen Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice, linebacker Derrick Brooks, and strong safety John Lynch, is giving up only 249.9 yards per game this season, slightly less than the 258.6 yards per game that the Steelers allowed in 2001, when they had the league's top-ranked defense.

Perhaps more impressive is the 4.1 yards per play average that the Bucs have allowed this season. The Steelers gave up 4.5 yards per play in 2001 and are allowing opponents 4.8 yards per play this season.

"Last year they were (paper champions)," Steelers defensive end Kimo von Oelhoffen said of the Bucs. "But this year they are playing some good football."

But, von Oelhoffen added that he hopes Tampa Bay latches onto the "paper champion" quote. "I hope they start jawing because I believe this defense, when we get challenged, we play our best football."

The Steelers' defense must have felt challenged in the past three games because it has turned around its fortunes considerably.

Beginning with a 25-23 win at Jacksonville, the Steelers have given up 226, 47, and 131 total yards in their last three games. It's been a pleasant turnaround for a unit that had allowed opponents more than 350 yards five times this season. With two games left in the regular season, the Steelers defense may be peaking at just the right time.

"I hope so," said defensive coordinator Tim Lewis. "If you're going to play well, this is the time of year to do it."

Here are some other thoughts from a sports writer who loves seeing coaches throw little red beanies onto the field:

  • The Steelers' brass had to breath a big sigh of relief after Tommy Maddox's performance Sunday. It wasn't great by any means, but it was solid and came against a pretty good, although banged up, Carolina defense.
  • The Steelers are allowing an NFL-low 84.8 yards rushing per game and just 3.7 yards per carry. In the past five games, they've given up 364 yards rushing on 124 carries - a 2.9 yards per carry average.

    Five games ago was right about the time Kendrell Bell started playing like himself again.

    Coincidence? I think not.

  • Tim Lewis said Sunday that when teams line up against the Steelers with a tight end, two running backs, and wide receivers, he likes their chances every time.

    Maybe they can get the league's rules committee to force everyone to play that way?

    Maybe not.

  • Lewis has a point, however. That offensive formation is what the Steelers defense is built to play against. And yet some opponents seem content to just go straight-up against it.

    Even if you don't necessarily have the talent to spread the Steelers out, why wouldn't you try it? Atlanta's receivers are garbage, yet they were able to run the spread against the Steelers with some effectiveness.

  • With two games to play, Amos Zereoue has 162 carries while Jerome Bettis has 161. The two have combined for 1,235 yards rushing and 11 touchdowns. You'll see a similar split in 2003, even if Bettis stays healthy the entire season, which is a big if.
  • Jason Gildon, nice to see you.
  • Aaron Smith played his best game of the season against the Panthers.

    On one particular play in the first quarter, he ran all the way down the line to tackle running back Nick Goings, sprinting nearly stride for stride with the running back.

  • I know, I know. It was Nick Goings.
  • But while Smith's sack numbers aren't the same as they were last season, he has 63 tackles this season – that's totally unheard of for a 3-4 end.
  • Rodney Peete. Chris Weinke. Randy Fasani: Those were the three bozos the Panthers tried to pass off as NFL quarterbacks Sunday.

    Maybe the Steelers should have loaned Kordell Stewart to Carolina, just to make the game interesting.

    It would also have given the Panthers a view of what they could have next season if the price is right.

  • If Plaxico Burress didn't show you he has heart Sunday, he never will.

    His biggest play of the game was not his 47-yard reception nor the TD catch; it was his tackle of safety Mike Minter on an interception return.

    It was Burress who slipped on the turf and that allowed the interception that went 60 yards. And it was Burress who came streaking into the play to force Minter out of bounds at the Pittsburgh 6.

    The Panthers scored a TD off the turnover, but Burress' hustle could not be overlooked.

    --Dale Lolley

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