ASHBURN, Va. - Washington Redskins safety Mark Carrier has this method of judging defenses.
"You grade a great defense by how they play on the road," said Carrier, whose Redskins (2-2) will face the Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-1) Sunday at FedEx Field. "And [the Bucs' defense] plays excellent on the road, you know they are going to play good at home. But when they play on the road, they take it up to another level."
Carrier knows something about dominant defenses. He played with the remnants of the 1985 Chicago Bears defense - thought by some to be the greatest ever - while with the Bears in 1990.
The Bucs' defense the last time they played the Redskins was Bears-like in its dominance. Washington entered last season's second-round playoff game with the No. 2-ranked offense but was held without a touchdown and to 157 total yards. Quarterback Brad Johnson was sacked three times, running back Stephen Davis had only 37 yards and the offense had two turnovers in a 14-13 loss.
That came at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. So by Carrier's summation, the Bucs' defense could give a better showing Sunday on the road in Landover.
It should be motivated enough: Tampa Bay gave up two touchdowns in the last five minutes of a 21-17 home loss to the New York Jets on Sunday.
"We're always disappointed when we let people score, especially in the last two minutes," Bucs coach Tony Dungy said. "We got a lot of guys with a lot of pride on that defense.
"We had an 11-point lead and the ball with about six minutes to go. You don't feel like you are going to lose those games, and we haven't around here in a long time. But we didn't play well in the last five minutes. It was a great lesson for us."
The Bucs' defense is ranked second in the NFC behind New Orleans. Tampa Bay finished first in the NFC last year, but Dungy made a couple of risky moves during the off-season that involved two players who combined for 13 seasons with the team.
Tampa Bay choose not to re-sign middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, the lone Pro Bowl player years before the Bucs' defense was filled with Pro Bowlers. He signed with the Jacskonville Jaguars. Tampa Bay also cut defensive tackle Brad Culpepper before the season opener.
Dungy said he needed the defense to get younger, so he went with second-year tackle Anthony McFarland and third-year middle linebacker Jamie Duncan.
"It's tough any time you let veteran players go and guys who have been a big part of what you have done," Dungy said. "But I think this system forces you to make those kind of decisions. We had some young people ready to step in and play, and they have."
Losing Nickerson left outspoken tackle Warren Sapp as the leader of the defense. Sapp said he feels more of a responsibility to make big plays this season because of the departure of the veterans, especially Culpepper, his former fellow defensive line starter and friend.
"No matter how you punch it into your computer in your head, it doesn't equate to Brad Culpepper being cut," Sapp said. "That was the one thing that was most disturbing. I know Anthony is a guy that is more than capable of playing. But why not have three deadly bullets?"
Sapp, of course, was limiting the bullet reference to the defensive tackles. The defense as a whole has more than three deadly bullets, including Pro Bowl strong safety John Lynch, outside linebacker Derrick Brooks, defensive end Chidi Ahonotu and cornerback Donnie Abraham.
Brooks was voted the team MVP last season after 122 solo tackles, and Abraham had an NFC-best seven interceptions last year.
Opposing teams point to the Bucs' overall defensive speed and how they swarm to the ball as the keys to their success the past three seasons. The speed allows the Bucs to sit in a two-deep zone for the majority of the game, then fly to the ball and make plays.
It has worked well since Dungy took the team over in 1996. The defense has kept the Bucs in many games in which their offense has struggled. Dungy said this year's version is on pace to be the best he has had.
But Sapp has loftier goals for the defense.
"We go out and try and perform every week because we want to be considered one of the best defenses every to play this game," Sapp said. "We are chasing history as well as each opponent we go out and face."
NOTES: Redskins center Cory Raymer is scheduled to have reconstructive knee surgery for a torn anterior cruciate ligament today in Birmingham, Ala. He will miss the rest of the season. Raymer injured his knee during training camp. He tried to return last week but the knee gave out during practice. ... Redskins receiver Michael Westbrook is scheduled for knee surgery Oct. 10. ... Keith Sims (Achilles' tendonitis) missed practice but is expected to play Sunday. James Jenkins (neck) and Larry Centers (elbow) practiced and are probable for Sunday.