ST. LOUIS -- No opponent knows the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' stingy defense better than Lovie Smith.
The St. Louis Rams' new defensive coordinator helped put the plan together as the Bucs' linebackers coach from 1996-2000, and when he moved he took what he learned to heart.
Entering Monday night's game, he's got the Rams' defense -- call it Bucs North -- on an almost-equal footing with the Rams' offense, the NFL's best. This is his perfect chance to show off against his old team.
The Rams (8-1) have eight different starters from last season, when they were the most porous playoff team in NFL history and allowed 29 points per game. They're rated fourth on defense this year, four spots ahead of the Bucs (4-5), and giving up an average of 17 points.
''I'll tell you what, I couldn't be prouder,'' Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. ''He did a fantastic job for us, and there was no doubt he'd do well wherever he went.''
Dungy is a bit surprised, though, that success has come so quickly for Smith.
''It took us about 2 1/2 years to get it where we really wanted it,'' Dungy said. ''They're up to the top in about 10 weeks, so that speaks to the job he's done.''
Smith doesn't get too excited about the Rams' rapid progress, often pointing out the flaws, so he's not letting this game go to his head.
''Of course, there are special feelings,'' Smith said. ''There are a lot of good friends down there that will always be good friends.
''You compete a lot harder growing up when you're going against your brother than you do an outsider.''
Dungy doesn't know if it's an advantage for the Bucs to be as familiar with Smith as he is with them.
''Sometimes, you can outthink yourself,'' Dungy said. ''I'm sure he's telling his guys this, and we're telling our guys this: You just have to go out and play, and read your keys and do what you should do.''
Smith is just a part of the Rams' heavy Tampa Bay influence, with three defensive players coming from the Bucs this year. Linebacker Don Davis is out with a dislocated wrist, but linemen Chidi Ahanotu and Tyoka Jackson figure to be key players on Monday night, especially with tackle Damione Lewis out for the season with a broken foot and sack specialist Leonard Little sidelined six weeks with a torn knee ligament.
Ahanotu likes Smith's approach, which emphasizes stopping the big play and gang-tackling. Last year,. the St. Louis defense had an often bewildering array of options.
''We don't change up much at all and you can let guys line up and tee off,'' Ahanotu said. ''Guys who were here last year, they really appreciate it. To hear them talk, their defense last year was a little too many Xs and Os.''
The Rams' offense also could benefit from Smith's influence this week after facing a Bucs-like defense in practice.
''There's no question it helps us,'' quarterback Kurt Warner said. ''But nobody plays it like Tampa.''
On the other hand, Martz' mantra all season has been that the Rams are competing only against themselves.
''You can tell when they get up to the line, they're worried about what they're executing,'' Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber said. ''They don't care what the defense has called. When you've got a quarterback as pinpoint as Kurt is, you can do that.''
The Buccaneers are hoping for a midseason surge for the third straight year. They were 3-4 the previous two seasons and made the playoffs both times.
''How big this game can be for us is a story to be told later,'' linebacker Derrick Brooks said. ''Right now, we are just trying to get a win and it just happens to be the Rams this week.''
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