Bucs defense coming up short

TAMPA, Fla. -- Technically, these world champion Buccaneers still have a pulse.

Over the last dozen NFL seasons no fewer than nine teams with a 4-5 record or worse through nine games have made the playoffs. Last year the Jets and Browns rallied from that dubious position, and in 2001 the Bucs themselves managed that death-defying feat.

Technically, they are still alive. Technically.

Super Bowl champions don't repeat like they used to. The 1997-98 Denver Broncos were the last team to do it. Dallas (1992-93) and San Francisco (1988-89) are the only other franchises to do it in the last 27 seasons. With today's free agent system and the depth-constricting salary cap, parity reigns.

Since John Elway rode off into the Denver dusk, we have seen the Rams, Ravens, Patriots and Bucs all break through, only to fall swiftly to earth. St. Louis and Baltimore both struggled to earn wild-card berths with 10-6 records the season after their titles, and New England just missed with a 9-7 mark.

No one is taking the 4-5 start well at One Buccaneer Place, particularly one Jon Gruden. You could hear him through the walls, hacking up the quarterbacks in the offensive meeting room on Wednesday afternoon, tossing around J-bombs -- "Jimminy Christmas!" -- like they're Skittles. But, wonder of wonders, it's not the offense that is killing the Bucs, but the defense. The vaunted, this-could-be-the-best-defense-ever defense that allowed opponents just over 12 points per game a year ago.

While the offense has rallied heroically on several occasions, the defense has digressed, allowing offenses to dictate policy late in games.

Four days before Tampa Bay's crucial game with Green Bay, Gruden strode into the interview room, then grimaced as the inevitable question was launched.

How do you explain the Bucs' inexplicable inability to finish games?

"Well," Gruden said with a smirk, "we're in the process right now of figuring that out. I mean, we sit around here and talk to ESPN, talk to whoever about all our problems. Jimminy Christmas, we'll never get it solved."

Said cornerback Ronde Barber, "We played some damn close games last year, but we won. We played some really close games this year, and we seem to lose them all."

The Bucs have lost four three-point games; last year there was only one such loss. There is a subtle sense of desperation in the hallways where the receptionists answer calls with "World champion Bucs, how may I help you?"

Playing defense in the last two minutes would be a start. Last year, on the way to the Super Bowl, Tampa Bay held the lead or was tied in the fourth quarter in 12 games. The Bucs only lost one of those contests -- 26-20 against New Orleans in the opener. That means the Bucs won their last 11 games when they were even or protecting a lead -- a statistic the Dodgers' Eric Gagne would be proud of.

This season, the Bucs have already lost four of those games. They were tied at 9-9 with Carolina in the season's second game, but lost on an overtime field goal. Two weeks later they took a 28-7 lead into the fourth quarter against the Indianapolis Colts on Monday night and collapsed horribly on national television, losing 38-35 in overtime. The Colts needed only six plays to go 80 yards in 95 seconds for the winning field goal.

The Bucs seemed to find an equilibrium, winning two of the next three games, but the problem resurfaced the last two weeks. After closing a 0-14 gap against the New Orleans Saints, the defense fell apart. The Saints, with 2:08 on the clock and no timeouts left, ran five plays, gained 43 yards and John Carney's 47-yard field goal was the difference. Last week against the Panthers, it was an eerily similar scenario. Trailing 20-7 early in the fourth quarter, the offense produced 17 points, which gave the Bucs at 24-20 lead. With 2:36 on the clock and no timeouts left, Jake Delhomme drove the Panthers 78 yards for the winning score. He completed five of six passes, the last one a 5-yard touchdown to Steve Smith.

"I don't understand that," Gruden said after the game.

Well, for starters, consider that this Bucs defense isn't as young as it used to be. Safety John Lynch is in his 11th season. Linebacker Derrick Brooks and defensive tackle Warren Sapp, first-round draft choices in 1995, are in their ninth season. And while they became one of the league's best units under Tony Dungy from 1996-2001, history suggests last season was their crowning achievement.

While defensive end Simeon Rice (11 sacks) has helped hold it together, the Bucs miss linebacker Alshermond Singleton and free safety and Super Bowl MVP Dexter Jackson, who left via free agency. Injuries to cornerback Brian Kelly and linebacker Shelton Quarles have hurt, too.

The Bucs, as a group, have refrained from making excuses.

"It's just a matter of going out there and doing it," Brooks said. "I'm just as ticked off as anybody, but I'm not going to let last week's game beat me this week. In this league, you forget about it and move. You get a win and you move on. You lose, you move on.

"We're not going to let anything prior to this affect us against Green Bay."

When Monte Kiffin, the defensive coordinator, was asked what was missing, he had an interesting answer.

"Our guys want to win so bad, they want to get back to the Super Bowl," he said. "It's like, 'Guys, we just need to win this game and stop them. Don't worry about getting back to the Super Bowl.'

"Guys try to cover for everybody else or do somebody else's job. 'Just do your job.' It's not got anything to do with effort. It's just they're probably trying too hard."

This has been evident, particularly in the secondary, with players going for play-action fakes like sharks on chum.

"Yeah, you've got to fight that a lot," Barber said. "Great players feel like they can do their job and somebody else's job, but that's never the case. You're a great player because you handle your job better than anybody else can handle it."

Championships tend to have two well-documented effects: 1) The champions tend to work a little less hard than they did the year before, while 2) Opponents work a little harder to beat them. That slight shift can be the difference between kicking the winning field goal and helplessly watching it float through the goalposts you're defending.

As Barber pointed out, it is not a great stretch to imagine the Bucs at 8-1; the only time they've been manhandled was the 24-7 loss at San Francisco on Oct. 19. Give Tampa Bay any one of those four three-point losses and they'd be at 5-4 and in reasonable shape for an NFC wild-card berth. With Carolina and Dallas the only seven-win teams in the NFC, it looks like 10-6 will be good enough to make the playoffs, maybe even 9-7.

There is a marvelous picture from Super Bowl XXXVII in the Bucs' meeting room:

The Raiders' Jerry Rice lies on the ground, watching Jackson, flanked by Barber, sprint down the field with a ball intended for him. In Rice's weary eyes, you can see the Raiders' age and the inevitable defeat that 10 months later has been confirmed by a 2-7 record. Will the Bucs follow the Raiders as fallen idols?

It seems to be simply a matter of confidence.

"Swagger is created by winning. I mean, when are you going to swag when you're losing?" Brooks said, creatively using "swag" as a verb. "Winning's a cure-all. We get a win, we get that confidence going around here and we'll be fine."

Despite their situation, do not forget that the Bucs are still champions. Certainly, they have not forgotten.

"My frame of mind is I hope we're in the same situation this week," Lynch said. "I know who we're playing -- Brett Favre -- I know he's hoping he's in that same situation. But we're hoping, too, because until you do it, all those questions will be out there, until you finish someone."

Greg Garber is a senior writer for ESPN.com.