NEW YORK — For eight seasons, they combined forces to make Tampa Bay the defensive center of the NFL universe.
The Pro Football Hall of Fame couldn’t help but notice.
A year after defensive tackle Warren Sapp joined the late Lee Roy Selmon in the Hall, the NFL’s shrine of excellence could recognize two more key components of the Buccaneers’ Tampa 2 defense on Saturday — linebacker Derrick Brooks and safety John Lynch — along with the overseer of a defensive scheme that is still prevalent in today’s game, coach Tony Dungy.
“The Tampa 2 has been as influential defensively as the West Coast offense has been on the other side of the ball,’’ said Steelers head coach Mike Tomlin, who served as secondary coach for the Bucs from 2001 to 2005.
“Look at the significance of what that defense did schematically for a generation of players. The under tackle for that scheme is Warren Sapp and the (weak-side) linebacker is Derrick Brooks. The strong safety is John Lynch and the architect is Tony Dungy. Those four men are the prototypes.’’
Brooks, Lynch and Dungy are among 15 modern-day finalists for the Class of 2014 that will be announced tonight at Radio City Music Hall. A maximum of five candidates may be named for any class.
Sapp, Brooks and Lynch were full-time starters on the Bucs for eight years, beginning in 1996. Tampa Bay’s defense never ranked lower than eighth in points allowed or 11th in yards yielded during that span, capped by the 2002 championship season.
“Warren said we took this team from a third-world country to the Taj Mahal,’’ said Lynch, who played the final four of his 15 NFL seasons in Denver. “We take a lot of pride in what we did in Tampa. People will debate whether we were one of the greatest defenses of all time. I believe we were.’’
Dungy learned the basic principles of a defense that would eventually be labeled the “Tampa 2’’ during his eight years as an assistant in Pittsburgh under Chuck Noll.
“It’s gratifying to get the recognition, but the roots are the Steelers, and we resurrected it in Tampa,’’ Dungy said. “When I got there in 1996, it was kind of the perfect storm. Derrick’s weak-side rules were right out of Jack Ham’s book. John Lynch reminded me of Donnie Shell, and I told Warren he would love our system because he could be our Joe Greene.’’
Ham and Greene are in the Hall, along with two other cornerstones of the Steel Curtain — linebacker Jack Lambert and cornerback Mel Blount.
If Lynch and Brooks enter with the Class of 2014, Dungy’s Tampa defense will boast three representatives, with cornerback Ronde Barber eligible to join them in four years.
“I don’t watch a whole lot of pro football, but I certainly enjoyed watching those guys play defense down in Tampa,’’ said Ham, who was inducted into the Hall in 1988. “If those Buc teams had any kind of offense, those guys would have a few more Super Bowls.’’
While Brooks and Dungy are in their first year of eligibility, Lynch was eliminated in 2013 when selectors reduced the list of 25 semifinalists to 15.
After six years in Tampa, Dungy went on to implement the Cover 2 at Indianapolis, where he led the 2006 Colts to a Super Bowl victory against the Bears and new Bucs coach Lovie Smith.
“Some people will say the Cover 2 started in Pittsburgh, but in the modern-day NFL, the way it has been played for an era, Tony Dungy is the major influence,’’ Hall of Fame coach John Madden said. “We still might be in that era today, where teams get the middle linebacker deep and two safeties split the field. All these years later, that defense is still having a big impact.’’
Pittsburgh’s four Hall of Famers on defense led the way as the Steelers won four Super Bowls within a six-year span. The 1985 Bears and the 2000 Ravens also hoisted the Vince Lombardi Trophy behind suffocating defenses, but those franchises couldn’t sustain defensive excellence over an extended period.
“I’ll put our influence right up there with the Steelers of the ’70s” Brooks said. “They had just enough offense ... we had none.’’
Despite all that defensive talent, the Bucs reached the Super Bowl only once, and that came the year following Dungy’s departure.
“The knock on us that separates us from the Steelers is those guys are walking around with the rings and we are not,’’ Brooks said. “Fair statement. That puts them there and leaves us here. My fierce pride is because we did it over time. I give the Steel Curtain their respect ... but we were pretty good.’’
During his seven years as Steelers head coach, Tomlin has boasted some stellar defenses. Still, he won’t soon forget looking around the Tampa Bay locker room on game day and feeling exceedingly confident about the outcome.
“We had special men on all three levels of that defense,’’ Tomlin said. “Since that time, we’ve watched a generation of men come into this league and be defined as the next Brooks, Sapp and Lynch. And you know what? None of them are.’’
After seeing Sapp honored with a Hall of Fame bust last summer, Bucs co-owner Joel Glazer is looking forward to another trip to Canton.
“There’s a tremendous source of pride in knowing we had the pleasure of watching the best of the best in Tampa,’’ Glazer said. “It was a privilege just being associated with those men. When you have a defense named after you, that’s pretty much the ultimate compliment in the game of football.’’
Editor’s note: Tribune staff writer Ira Kaufman is the Tampa Bay representative on the Pro Football Hall of Fame Selection Committee.