They once attacked offenses with the ferocity of Cujo, on steroids. Now, they’re about as frightening as Old Yella.

The Bucs defense, once an elite unit in the NFL, is crumbling before our very eyes.

These days at Raymond James Stadium are starting to resemble the ones at the Big Sombrero in the pre-Tony Dungy era.

And the bevy of fans sprinting for the exits before the game is over confirms the changing of the times.

Yes, Sunday’s performance, or lack thereof against the Saints, will encourage doubters of the defense to bring up the issue of age across the board, poor execution in the secondary and a lack of a pass rush up front.
Some will say it’s all of the above.

That’s hard to argue against.

True, Saints quarterback Drew Brees is fantastic. That’s why he signed a six-year $60-million deal with New Orleans this offseason. But, the Bucs have smashed those types in the past. Instead, they allowed Brees to stick his hand down their throat and rip out a couple vital organs en route to a 31-14 beating.

How humiliating was the loss? The NFL’s version of a mercy rule took effect when the Saints took a knee on four straight possessions after recovering a fumble on the Bucs nine in the final minute.

It’s unclear if Brees was asking forgiveness for what he did.

Imagine, the benevolent Saints, who played without receiver Joe Horn, left tackle Jamal Brown and tight end Ernie Conwell, all starters, actually felt sorry for a division foe.

What in Sam Wyche is happening here?

“I don’t have a lot to say about this one,” cornerback Ronde Barber said. “It was ugly. Everybody needs to point to themselves and say, ‘It’s their fault.’… I’m struggling to find perspective of what happened (Sunday).”

Try this on for size. The Bucs are 2-6, four games behind the Saints at the top of the NFC South. The Bucs defense surrendered 314 yards, so many of them on deep third-and-longs that it seemed like the defenders were allergic to their own sideline.

They allowed three touchdowns over 40-plus yards. Three!

“We just gave up the big play,” defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin said. “We usually don’t do that. It’s usually our trademark (to prevent the deep ball). The last time we played these guys their longest (pass) plays were for 18 and 17 yards. This time we didn’t have good coverage and we didn’t have a good rush.”

Ah! Now, at a time when players and coaches are careful not to throw each other under the bus, that’s something tangible.

The Bucs had no problems with the running game, strangling the Saints backs for 49 yards on 35 carries. But Brees never looked desperate in the pocket and Tampa Bay’s secondary, particularly safeties Will Allen and Jermaine Phillips, seemed routinely out of position.

Traditionally, what’s not to love about defensive end Simeon Rice going up against a rookie, playing his first game ever in the NFL. This would be rookie left tackle Zach Strief, the 210th player selected in the draft who played right tackle for Northwestern. This would be a rookie who had surgery 11 days ago on his right ring finger and is not listed on the Saints depth chart at left tackle.

“Our goal was to get them behind on the down and distance,” Gruden said. “Let’s rush the passer and let’s take advantage of a rookie left tackle and see how well he can pass protect… I’m not going to point a finger. We were all at the game. Brees got away a number of times using his feet.”

And while Brees was getting away in the pocket, receivers Marques Colson and Devery Henderson were getting away from the Bucs version of zone coverage.

Give Kiffin credit for being a team guy. As deplorable as the Bucs safeties have played this year, Kiffin wasn’t about to act rashly Sunday night.

“I can’t (single them out),” he said. “I’m going to believe in them. I’m going to (evaluate) that after the season. I never do that during the season.”

Yes, some of the debacle has to be attributed to the excellence of the NFC South leaders. The Saints are, by virtue of their record and the manner with which they have gone about the 2006 season, a top-notched team on both sides of the ball.

Yes, some of the blame must fall squarely on the shoulders of a Bucs offense that went the first six possessions without a touchdown and then failed to capitalize on momentum gained in the second quarter.

But when has this team ever been about offense?

Just about never.

There in lies the great danger for the rest of 2006 and points onward. When the Bucs defense starts to fall apart, this franchise will follow suit.

Perhaps, that has already begun.

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