By ROY CUMMINGS rcummings@tampatrib.com
Published: Oct 17, 2004






ST. LOUIS - Hang around Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin long enough and you get the feeling that if you could somehow tap into him, you'd discover an alternative energy source.
Kiffin is the human equivalent of the silver ball in a pinball machine. He's not walking or even running through life; he's bouncing through it like the sheared end of a downed power line.

``You know how it is when you get so worked up that you can't even get the words out to speak? That's Monte,'' safety John Howell said. ``And he's like that all the time, every day.

``He's like that at practice, he's like that before games. He's like that when he's getting ready to turn on the tape machine for us to watch film in a meeting. He just eats, sleeps and breathes this stuff.''

Kiffin definitely eats and breathes football. Whether he sleeps it or not is up for debate. After all, Kiffin doesn't sleep much, especially during weeks like the one leading into tonight's game at St. Louis.

``Around here, your motor is always running high,'' defensive backs coach Mike Tomlin said. ``But during weeks like this, when you're taking on the `Greatest Show on Turf,' it runs a little higher.

``It's only natural because it's always a playoff-like atmosphere when we face the Rams. You just can't help but get up a little more, so for Monte, it's a few more cups of coffee, a few more hours looking over tape each night.''

The overtime and extra caffeine have paid dividends in the past. Since 1999, when the Rams' high-wire act first debuted, the Bucs have kept St. Louis from matching its gaudy average point output three times.

Only three other teams - New Orleans, San Francisco and the New York Giants - can make that claim, but none of them have done it while twice playing on the Rams' turf, including once during an unforgettable playoff game.

The date was Jan. 23, 2000. At stake was the opportunity to represent the NFC in Super Bowl XXXIV. Few gave the Bucs much of a chance. After all, the Rams had the homefield edge and all that offensive firepower.

Through 16 regular-season games and one playoff game, they had produced an average of 33.8 points a game, never scoring any less than 21.

Against Kiffin's defense, though, the Rams didn't reach the end zone until late in the fourth quarter and scored just 11 points - which was still enough to win the game.

The victory, of course, launched the Rams toward their first Super Bowl title - they beat Tennessee, 23-16 - but it also launched a rivalry between the Bucs and Rams.

During the years it has raged - this will be the fourth ``Monday Night Football'' meeting - it has been a classic matchup of offense vs. defense.

And the rivalry within the rivalry has been Kiffin vs. Rams coach Mike Martz, the offensive rocket scientist whose passing game has earned the ``Greatest Show on Turf'' tag.

The one thing Kiffin and Martz agree on is speed. Both coaches believe it is the most important aspect of their respective schemes, the thing that sets their teams apart.

``They play fast, especially on that turf of theirs,'' Bucs defensive tackle Anthony McFarland said. ``But we play fast, too. Not a lot of people can play as fast against them as we do. We try to match their speed.''

That appears to work. Since losing that NFC title game, the Bucs have won each of the three meetings with the Rams, including a 38-35 shootout at Raymond James Stadium in 2000.

And while speed no doubt played a factor in those victories, Martz believes it is the Bucs' uncanny ability to do something else that has allowed them to have so much success against him.

``I think the thing they do better than anybody is they take the ball away from you,'' Martz said. ``They flat out create turnovers, and that, by and large, is one of the most impressive things about them.''

The Bucs have created a total of 10 turnovers in their last two games against the Rams, and if they can put some pressure on quarterback Marc Bulger, they could maintain that pace tonight.

The Rams offense the Bucs will face tonight, though, is more balanced than in the past. The addition of rookie running back Steven Jackson is one reason.

Jackson is a powerful runner, and while he's only getting about a quarter of the carries, his average of 6.9 yards a rush is proof that he's a productive alternative to feature back Marshall Faulk.

``They've got some new receivers, too,'' Kiffin said. ``They lost [Az-Zahir] Hakim, but now they've got these young guys like [Shaun] McDonald and [Kevin] Curtis coming on, and [Isaac] Bruce and [Torry] Holt, they haven't lost a step.''

The Bucs defense has a different look, too. Warren Sapp and John Lynch are gone, but Martz said he doesn't see a lot of changes.

``The structure is fairly similar to what they've been doing,'' he said. ``There are a couple of coverage changes that are a little bit different, but Monte is very creative.

``He'll always find a way to take advantage of his personnel. I mean, they're not the fourth-best defense [statistically] in the league for nothing. He gets them up so they'll be flying to the ball with the same intensity and speed that they've always had.''