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COMMENTARY

Defenses That Refuse to Rotate Spin Out

October 12, 2003|Bob Oates | Special to The Times

A good, sound, up-to-date NFL team is one that rotates two defensive lines, reasoning that it has a better chance to win with eight fresh pass rushers than four tiring all-pros.

Indianapolis quarterback Peyton Manning taught that lesson to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their all-pros Monday night.

The Buccaneers have hired the best front four on the continent, but they don't rotate defensive linemen, and Manning wore out the all-pros chasing him on a long series of long passes.

Then, no longer bothered by the suddenly weary Buccaneers, he rallied the Colts to a surprisingly easy 38-35 comeback victory with the most artistic passing show in recent NFL history, completing so many third-down throws that his official rating as a third-down passer must have bolted into the stratosphere.

It was one of the great personal quarterbacking triumphs of all time. And the way it came about was predictable:

* Defense is much more exhausting than offense for NFL linemen.

* The best way to combat that is with extra defensive players -- two defensive lines.

This relatively new trend hasn't yet spread to Tampa, and so the Buccaneers became what is believed to be the first team to blow a 21-point lead with less than four minutes to play.

Tampa's collapse enabled Manning to finish with 34 completions in 47 throws for 386 yards, even though his offensive line had been unable to protect him when the night was young and the defending champion Buccaneers were rested and eager.

Although Tampa Bay's defensive front four is the NFL's best since the Ram days of Deacon Jones and Merlin Olsen, all four of them wore down, sprinting in to smash the Colt quarterback. He didn't deflate.

Thus on Manning's long overtime drive setting up the winning field goal, he could make all four of the critical third-down plays that beat the best team in football. Four consecutive big third-down plays. That's extraordinary.

The Strange Penalty

The leaping penalty, the rarely called restraint that gave the Colts a second chance to win in overtime after their flustered kicker, Mike Vanderjagt, had failed the first time, is in the NFL code for the players' own protection -- and it belongs there.

If you let every tall, eager professional jump as high as he wants whenever he sets out to block a field goal, he might come down heavily on somebody's leg, then spin awkwardly away, turn a cartwheel, fall on his head, and injure himself or another player. Serious injuries on kick-prevention special teams threatened regularly in the old days before the rules were tightened.

It was one of the Buccaneers' tiring all-pros, Simeon Rice, who summoned the energy to make the illegal blocked-kick attempt that awarded Vanderjagt a second chance. Then he lucked out the second time.

Even so, the leaping penalty isn't what beat Tampa Bay. It was Manning who won this game. It was Manning who beat Tampa Coach Jon Gruden, who had inherited the defense from Tony Dungy, the Indianapolis coach who bested him this strange night in Tampa.

Gruden had seen no reason to modernize the great defensive line that Dungy willed him -- modernizing with four journeymen in a rotation system with all his all-pros -- but conceivably, he sees some reason now.

For as they age, the Buccaneers will be increasingly vulnerable to a quarterback like Manning, a quarterback with a lively young passing arm and the young, strong legs to carry him away from Gruden's bruisers. At present, Gruden seems safe. Now that Brett Favre is aging too, there's only one Peyton Manning.

Many Great Games

There are so many good ways to play winning football that "the greatest game ever played" has been played many times.

One of the best shows was Monday night's. No other coach and quarterback have been able to do what Dungy and Manning accomplished in their 28-point fourth-quarter rally from 35-14 to 35-35, after which their little three-point overtime performance was almost a formality against Gruden's dog-tired all-pros.

Or, possibly, the best game played was in Kansas City Sunday when unbeaten Kansas City came from behind to conquer unbeaten Denver, 24-23. Both sides scored in every quarter to keep it dramatic before the Chiefs won with a humdrum play: another long kick return by Dante Hall, his seventh in 10 games, this one for 93 yards.

Or the best game might be today when the NFL's new power, 4-0 Carolina, a conqueror of Super Bowl champion Tampa Bay, lines up against the other giant-killer, 5-0 Indianapolis.

Some say the all-time best game was played 45 years ago in New York when Baltimore's 1958 whiz team won the NFL title by eliminating the New York Giants in sudden-death overtime, 23-17.

Within days, New York newspapers had christened that one "greatest game ever played" as well as "the game that made football No. 1."

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