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Improved defense critical to Buccaneers' playoff hopes

TAMPA, Fla. -- Derrick Brooks has something to ask people who think the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are only in playoff contention because they are benefiting from playing in the weak NFC South.

The 10-time Pro Bowl linebacker wants to know who cares?

Certainly not the first-place Bucs (5-4) or the leader of a rejuvenated defense that's one of the reasons the team is on top of the division and has already surpassed its victory total from last year.

"We deserve to be where we're at. We've won our games," Brooks said. "Now is that saying our division is weaker than any other division? No. ... Dallas, Detroit and Green Bay have one or two losses. Are they that much better than us? No. Most of the divisions, except New England's, are two-team races.

"Our division, it's a three-team race. So it doesn't matter. You get a guaranteed spot in the playoffs by winning your division. Thankfully for the Bucs, we control our own destiny."

While much has been made of the impact Jeff Garcia has had on Tampa Bay's offense, the Bucs have always been a team that's thrived on a defense that was among the NFL's stingiest for nine straight years before struggling in 2006.

No team has allowed fewer points the past decade and no one has limited opponents to fewer yards over the past 5 1/2 seasons, a stretch that began with Tampa Bay's Super Bowl run in 2002.

Although Brooks, end Greg Spires, cornerbacks Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin remain from the championship unit that popularized the Tampa Two scheme, the Bucs have a fresh look on defense.

There were five new starters coming out of training camp. With Spires and Kelly slowed by injuries, there were seven on the field when Tampa Bay held Arizona to 195 yards in a 17-10 victory that snapped a two-game losing streak last week.

The Cardinals were limited to 23 yards rushing, and Barber said the secondary played as well as it has as a unit in a long time. The victory gave the Bucs a half-game ahead of New Orleans and Carolina in the division.

"We had a lot of impact plays back there, and that's always been a strength of our defense," Barber said, adding that it was crucial to win and not take a three-game losing straight into the team's bye week.

"More than anything," the cornerback said, "we needed it for our psyche."

The defensive makeover began with the offseason-signing of free agent linebacker Cato June and end Kevin Carter, then took on a more youthful look with the drafting of end Gaines Adams and safety Tanard Jackson.

Jackson was just the second rookie to make an opening day start for Tampa Bay's defense since Brooks and Warren Sapp did it in 1995.

Adams, the fourth overall pick in the draft, made his first pro start last Sunday and is being counted on to help the Bucs correct one of their biggest deficiencies: the lack of a consistent pass rush.

Third-year pro Barrett Ruud has replaced retired middle linebacker Shelton Quarles; tackle Jovan Haye has a team-high four sacks in his first season as a starter; cornerback Phillip Buchanon has played well for the injured Kelly after disappointing stints in Oakland and Houston; and hard-hitting safety Jermaine Phillips has rebounded from a subpar 2006.

After finishing 17th in yards allowed last season, the Bucs were sixth heading into this week's bye.

If Brooks were grading, he'd given the unit a "B" for the first half of the season.

"I think we've improved in every area except two: turnovers and sacks," he said. "That's going to be a real big emphasis going into the second half. ... The games we win, the turnovers are there and the pressure is there in terms of making the quarterback uncomfortable. In the games we lose, we turn the ball over, we haven't gotten turnovers and there hasn't been any pressure on the quarterback."

Meanwhile, Garcia is making a major difference on offense.

The 37-year-old quarterback has completed nearly 66 percent of his passes, didn't throw an interception until the seventh game, and has kept the Bucs at or near the top of the division despite injuries to tailbacks Carnell "Cadillac" Williams and Michael Pittman, receiver Michael Clayton, tight end Alex Smith and left tackle Luke Petitgout.

"Given the circumstances, he has really been superb. ... He is a big reason why we have a chance," coach Jon Gruden said.

So doesn't that mean the Bucs are evolving into an offensive team after being carried by the defense for so many years?

Garcia said all that matters is he and his teammates are willing to do whatever it takes to be successful.

Brooks agreed.

"I want winning to be the identity of this football team," Brooks said. "I don't want to say we're strong in this area and weak in another. I just want us to be known as winners who find ways to win.

"Teams that find ways to win are good football teams. Those teams are good in every area, not in just one. That's the way it is."

Copyright 2007 by The Associated Press

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