Like many observers of his highly regarded defense, Tampa Bay Buccaneers Coach Tony Dungy can't resist drawing comparisons between his 1999 squad and the great defensive units in NFL history.
Dungy, who played two seasons (1977-78) as a reserve defensive back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, is quick to note that the Buccaneers' defense is young and far, far less accomplished than the famed "Steel Curtain" defense that included four future Hall of Famers and helped the Steelers to four Super Bowl titles.
But Dungy sees similarities between his defense and the early years of the Pittsburgh dynasty. There's defensive tackle Warren Sapp, a speedy big man who explodes through offensive lines like "Mean" Joe Greene. There's linebacker Derrick Brooks, whose punishing hits remind Dungy of Jack Ham. Like the 1974 Steelers, the 1999 Buccaneers are a group of young, imposing defenders who could remain together for years.
"That Pittsburgh team was young, and they were able to keep improving as a unit," Dungy said. "The styles are very similar.
"Some of the players do some similar things. Back then, you had a lot of good players on one team. Only time will tell if our guys can develop into that."
Dungy, who took over the Buccaneers in 1996, modeled his defense after Pittsburgh's. This season, Tampa Bay's defense dominated games. At a time when the combination of a conservative offense and an overpowering defense is all but extinct in the NFL, the performance by the Buccaneers' defense is all the more impressive.
The Washington Redskins, who will face the Buccaneers here in the NFC semifinals on Saturday, would seem to hold a huge advantage given their potent offense. But Tampa Bay went 11-5 during the regular season and won the NFC Central crown despite averaging 16.9 points per game, 25th in the NFL. On two occasions, the Buccaneers won without scoring an offensive touchdown.
"We go against the conventional wisdom," Dungy says. "You have to play your style and do what works best for you. This has worked well for us."
The Buccaneers' defensive style isn't easily categorized, perhaps because the players do not fit conventional molds.
Sapp, who was named the league's defensive player of the year on Thursday, is listed at 6 feet 2 but appears shorter. Brooks was thought to be too small to play linebacker in the NFL when he was drafted out of Florida State in 1995.
"People say we're undersized, but we're extremely physical," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said. "We're tenacious, we've got guys who make plays at every position and we can make adjustments."
While the Buccaneers might be old school, their swarming schemes led by some of the team's best athletes could set the standard for defenses.
"I don't like to think of us as a throwback because then we'd have to be slower than we are," says the brash Sapp, the leader of the group. "I don't think defenses in the past had as much speed as this defense does. We like to think of ourselves as the new wave of defenses.
"We line up and hit you in the mouth, and we're going to attack you for four quarters. We'll change things up a little bit, but there aren't many wrinkles in our scheme. We just run and we rattle and we tackle. It's that simple."
While the Buccaneers sometimes seem to emphasize defense at the expense of offense, Dungy did inherit the nucleus of the defense from former coach Sam Wyche.
Last spring, with the team in need of offensive line and quarterback help, it spent its first draft pick, the 15th overall selection, on defensive tackle Anthony McFarland. Then Tampa Bay landed Shaun King in the second round, and he is now the starting quarterback.
This season, the Bucs allowed only three individuals to rush for 100 yards in a game, and opponents completed a modest 52.7 percent of their passes. The defense finished fifth in the league against the run and third in total defense, but it was the ability to force turnovers that helped the Buccaneers become one of the league's premier teams.
Tampa Bay won eight of its last nine games in large part because the defense forced 25 turnovers, resulting in 81 points.
The opposition scored first in each of the five losses. That upset the Buccaneers' usual game plan of keeping the score low, then outlasting teams in the fourth quarter behind the punishing running of fullback Mike Alstott.
All this week, Dungy stressed the need to avoid a repetition of the Redskins' first-round playoff victory last week. In it, the Detroit Lions fell behind early and never recovered, losing, 27-13.
"In a lot of [Washington's] games they get up quick, and that presents a very different game than when they're even or behind," Dungy said. "We cannot let them get that big start. We like to think if the game is on the line in the fourth quarter, that's when we play our best."
Sapp said: "It's not going to be a 30-0 game. We don't do that here. We turn it into a 60-minute war. It boils down to four or five plays in the fourth quarter, and we expect to make them."
That does not always make for riveting football, at least for fans of high-scoring affairs.
In 10 of the Buccaneers' 16 games, neither they nor their opponent scored more than 21 points. Tampa Bay defeated the Chicago Bears here, 6-3, on Oct. 24 behind two field goals by Martin Gramatica. Of the remaining playoff teams in the NFC, only the Buccaneers do not have a powerful offense.
"Having a strong defense makes us different, but what's wrong with that?" defensive tackle Brad Culpepper said. "Maybe that difference will get us to the Super Bowl."