TAMPA, Fla. (AP) -If Derrick Brooks didn't take his job so seriously, he might be amused by questions about whether an aging defense is still good enough to get the Tampa Bay Buccaneers back to the playoffs.
What's age got to do with anything, the 10-time Pro Bowl selection wants to know. Don't people remember the so-called graybeards answering skeptics by helping the Bucs win the NFC South a year ago?
``We don't say anything. We just continue to make plays,'' said Brooks, who turned 35 in April and is entering his 14th season. ``Pretty soon they have to start using other words to describe you.''
The Bucs have allowed the fewest yards in the NFL twice and have ranked among the top 10 statistically 10 times in a dozen seasons under defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. They were second a year ago after sagging to 17th in 2006, when Tampa Bay finished 4-12 - its worst record since 1991.
``It went from the league catching up and aging to, 'Can they keep it going? How long can they keep cheating Father Time?''' Brooks said. ``You don't argue with that. You just keep making plays.''
Indeed, for all the talk about coach Jon Gruden's offensive acumen and gigantic playbook, the Bucs remain a team driven by a defense rejuvenated by young talent but still getting leadership and consistent play from Brooks and cornerback Ronde Barber.
Tampa Bay has won two of the last three division titles, but hasn't won a playoff game since winning the Super Bowl six seasons ago - Gruden's first with the Bucs. They are 36-44 since they captured their only NFL championship.
``I think you'd like to be known as an offensive team, but there is a mystique about our defense,'' Barber said.
``The Pittsburgh Steelers are kind of an offensive team now, but people still think they are a defensive team just because of their Super Bowls in the '70s. It's kind of a stigma that sticks with you, and this team has proven itself on defense over a lot of years. Until we stop doing that and start scoring 50 points, then we are going to be a defensive football team.''
Jeff Garcia sparked the offense a year ago, but the Bucs still struggled to get the ball into the end zone with the 38-year-old quarterback. He retains the starting job after the team made an unsuccessful bid to bring in Brett Favre.
Gruden and general manager Bruce Allen pursued a trade for Favre, even though Garcia is coming off a Pro Bowl season in which he set a team record for the lowest interception percentage.
The quarterback said there are no hard feelings about the flirtation with Favre, and he's also stopped talking publicly about his unhappiness over the lack of progress on a contract extension.
``I'm playing the last year of a contract year, and I'm going to make the most of it,'' Garcia said. ``I'm going to do everything I can do to help us win football games.''
Gruden did his part to help, signing free agent center Jeff Faine to solidify a young, improving offensive line and also bringing in running back Warrick Dunn, who returns to Tampa Bay after spending the last six years in Atlanta.
Dunn will share playing time with Earnest Graham, who flourished when pressed into duty last season because of injuries to Carnell ``Cadillac'' Williams and Michael Pittman. Michael Bennett, another former 1,000-yard runner, provides additional depth while Williams recovers from knee surgery.
One of the top priorities over the summer was finding a receiver to play opposite Joey Galloway. The team drafted former Appalachian State standout Dexter Jackson in the second round and signed free agent Antonio Bryant, who hasn't played in the NFL since 2006.
There are fewer questions about the defense.
Linebacker Barrett Ruud, end Gaines Adams and safety Tanard Jackson all contributed to Tampa Bay's resurgence as first-year starters in 2007, and first-round draft pick Aqib Talib and veteran Eugene Wilson were added this offseason to provide depth in the secondary.
Although there's a perception that the defense is getting up in age, there are just four starters 30 or older, with tackle Chris Hovan and end Kevin Carter joining Brooks and Barber.
And what may surprise people even more, Brooks said, is how the Bucs are getting the job done these days.
``We don't have to depend on Derrick Brooks and Ronde Barber to make every play,'' Brooks said.
``That's not to say Derrick Brooks and Ronde are getting old. It's just that we have more guys taking advantage of the opportunity to make plays.''

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