TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -- Warren Sapp is rarely at a loss for words.
He has an opinion on most subjects and usually is more than happy to share it. But when the topic shifts to the recent subpar play of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense, he's not sure how to explain the unit's performance.
"If I had a way to put my finger on it, we'd be a lot better than 3-3 right now," the 1999 NFL defensive player of the year said.
"It's just the little things that for so many years around here we've kind of taken for granted because we've done it so many times and done it correctly that its gotten away from us a little bit."
After an impressive 3-0 start in which the defense lived up to its billing as one of the league's best and an overhauled offense began to carry its weight, Tampa Bay has lost three straight since routing the Lions 31-10 on Sept. 17.
What's worse, the defense has failed to protect fourth-quarter leads twice in three games after winning 27 of 29 previous games they led after three quarters under coach Tony Dungy, who is as baffled as anyone about the lapses that cost the Bucs victories against the New York Jets and Minnesota Vikings.
"It just seems like we're going through our history the last four years," said Dungy, whose teams are 4-11 in October. "Every October it seems like its been this way and then we start playing a little better."
Sapp won't be satisfied with waiting until November to pull out of the current tailspin. The Bucs (3-3) face the Lions (4-2) Thursday night and desperately need a victory to have any realistic hopes of successfully defending their NFC Central title.
Detroit has rebounded from its loss to Tampa Bay in Week 3 to win two of three to move into second place, two games behind the unbeaten Vikings. Coach Bobby Ross discounts the notion that his team is benefitting from lessons learned from the first Bucs-Lions game.
"I don't know if we took anything away that was good. They kicked our rear ends. It was as simple as that," Ross said. "There wasn't a whole lot you could look at in any phase where I would say it was positive for us. I just think we took a good old fashioned beating."
Tampa Bay has a history of finishing strong under Dungy, and Sapp is eager to take the lead in getting things turned around again.
"I think there's a window of opportunity for this ballclub to win a championship, and when you've got that, your big-time players have to come to play week in and week out," the three-time Pro Bowl selection said.
"I've always considered myself one of the best players on this team. And for us to go where we've got to go, I have to be on top of my game ... I get a whole lot of stuff thrown at me. I can't be off my game. I go in with the idea that it all starts with me. And if it starts with me, then we're going to get off to a good start."
Sapp said there is no excuse for the failure to protect leads in two of the past three games. And, he's tired of hearing that Tampa Bay's offense has contributed to the problem by failing to consistently move the ball in the second half.
"They've done a great job," said Sapp, who has 7 1/2 of the Bucs' league-leading 28 sacks. "Every week they've given us enough points to win the game. We just haven't been able to go out as a defense and put the nail in the coffin."
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.