By Leonard Shapiro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 6, 2006
TAMPA, Jan. 5 -- When Tampa Bay Pro Bowl cornerback Ronde Barber watches tape of Clinton Portis, he says he often sees a mirror image of himself -- his identical twin brother and New York Giants running back Tiki Barber -- running the ball for the Washington Redskins.
"Portis is a special player," Barber said. "He challenges leverages. He's very much like Tiki. He can get out to the edge or he can beat you inside. The last game, he made our guys miss. I give him a lot of credit. It's not just the scheme they use. This guy has the talent to make people look bad."
Portis has done exactly that in two games against the Bucs during his two seasons in Washington. In the Redskins' 2004 season opener against Tampa Bay -- a 16-10 Washington victory -- Portis rushed for a 64-yard touchdown the first time he touched the ball and finished with 148 yards, the most in a season opener by a Redskins running back since 1965.
On Nov. 13, a 36-35 Tampa Bay victory, Portis gained 144 yards on 23 carries, including a long gain of 31 yards, and scored on an eight-yard touchdown run. Those 64- and 31-yard runs are the longest the Bucs' defense, now rated No. 1 in the NFL, has allowed over the last two seasons. No wonder Tampa Bay coaches and defenders all say their number one priority in Saturday's NFC first-round game is preventing Portis from running wild one more time.
Accomplishing that goal may well be another story. Portis has gone over 100 yards in each of the Redskins' five straight victories down the stretch, averaging 115 yards per game. But the Bucs have always prided themselves on making the proper adjustments to contain opposing offensive threats, and their numbers this season confirm their success. Since the Washington game, they have also tightened up considerably on defense, not allowing an opposing running back to gain more than 100 yards over the last seven games.
"We've gone back to the basics," veteran linebacker Derrick Brooks said. "We're not guessing now and we're getting off on third down, we're keeping the ball in front of us. Obviously, we let the ball get behind us on some plays that first time we played Washington and they ended up in scores against us. And in our run defense, we've gone back to basics there, too."
Brooks is one of seven defensive starters who also started on the franchise's Super Bowl team three years ago, a unit coached then and now by veteran coordinator Monte Kiffin. Under his tutelage, Tampa Bay has finished in the top 10 among NFL defenses for nine straight years.
Kiffin's unit does not blitz as often as the Redskins have the past two years, mainly because the Bucs' front four, especially defensive end Simeon Rice, has been so effective rushing quarterbacks.
Rice has 14 sacks and has had double-digit sack numbers in eight of his 10 NFL seasons.
"He's as highly conditioned an athlete as there is at his position," Tampa Bay Coach Jon Gruden said Wednesday, when Rice missed practice because of an undisclosed illness. "He has really been a force, particularly in the fourth quarter."
Rice said he's also looking forward to going up against Chris Samuels, the Redskins' Pro Bowl left tackle.
"I like facing anybody week to week and Chris is a great player. . . . He plays hard and has ample opportunities to make plays for his team," Rice said. "At times, I win. That's the type of game we're going to play. For myself, I understand that no one can block me in this league. I understand I'm the best of the best for what this game is. I think I'm that rare athlete that's able to negate offenses by doing things that require my skill, my effort, my heart, my playing level and my intensity."
Modesty has never been one of Rice's greatest attributes, but he has almost always been able to back up his talk. Brooks, Barber, defensive end Greg Spires, linebacker Shelton Quarles, cornerback Brian Kelly and free safety Dexter Jackson -- all starters on that 2002 team -- are a major reason opposing offenses have managed only 277.8 yards per game this season (94.7 rushing and 183.1 passing).
The unit also was bolstered this season by the addition of veteran free agent defensive tackle Chris Hovan, who left the Vikings after six seasons in Minnesota and has lined up at nose tackle most of the season.
"You just look at what Hovan has been able to bring in terms of intensity and run stoppage," Rice said. "It's been an overall performance for our defensive unit. It's a testament to everyone."
Hovan, like all the Bucs' defenders, also has been watching plenty of tape of Portis this week, and believes his team will fare far better against the Redskins the second time around.
"I think when we faced Washington [in November], that was the first time we faced a zone-blocking team throughout the year," he said. "I think in playing Atlanta and some other zone teams in the league, we know where our assignments are and who fits where, so I think we'll be a lot better prepared going into this game.
"Portis is The Man. They've given him the ball at the end, and we know that. We've got to stop the run, make them one-dimensional and take away the play-action pass. We're expecting a very, very fired up Washington team, so we have to match their intensity with ours."