OAKLAND, Calif. (AP) – Football always came easy to Warren Sapp. Get in a three-point stance, burst through a gap and go after the ball.

That all changed in his first year with Oakland. One of the game’s best defensive tackles was forced to play a new role, reading the offense before making his move.

With that disappointing season behind him and the Raiders using a more familiar defensive system, Sapp is once again sacking quarterbacks, busting up running plays and wreaking havoc on offenses around the league.

“I’m home,” Sapp said. “I know what the game looks like from in there. I know exactly what it looks like. When the tackle’s in this position, I know it’s pass. When the guard’s in this position, I know it’s pass. The game opens up for me because I’ve been in that position for so long.”

After spending much of last season as a defensive end in a three-man front that didn’t suit his skills, Sapp has moved back to the tackle position in the 4-3 alignment that he excelled in while making seven consecutive Pro Bowls for Tampa Bay.

That allows Sapp to focus on one gap between offensive linemen as opposed to reacting to what the offense is doing before making his move. It’s a change he likened to “taking shackles off you.”

“I like to put my hand in the dirt and let’s go,” he said. “No question marks.”

Sapp is back to the position he played in college at Miami and for nine years with the Buccaneers, back when his trash-talking and gregarious personality made him one of the game’s most prominent stars.

That’s why Al Davis and the Raiders lured him to Oakland with a seven-year, $36.6 million contract last season, hoping he would follow in a long line of aging stars who rediscovered success late in their careers wearing silver and black.

But Sapp struggled to fit into coordinator Rob Ryan’s scheme, getting a career-low 2sacks for a team that had one of the league’s worst defenses and won only five games.

“It was the hardest year of my life,” he said. “It was a humbling thing for me. That’s the thing I always take from it. All the time you can’t be the man. But you’ve got to play within the confines of a system. That really took something away from me because I couldn’t go. I had to read and react.”

Sapp said the team wasn’t playing to its strength last season – utilizing run-stuffing tackles like himself and Ted Washington to spearhead the defense. That, he said, created doubts among many of the players, who were often a step behind because of their uncertainty.

Ryan and coach Norv Turner scrapped last year’s system and went back to using more four-man fronts that Sapp had excelled in for so long.

The success of the change was clear last week, when Sapp played his best game yet with the Raiders. He had 2 sacks and a forced fumble that Jarrod Cooper recovered in the end zone in a 34-25 win at Tennessee. Sapp has 4 sacks on the year – all in the last four games – to go along with the forced fumble, an interception, three deflected passes and numerous quarterback hurries.

“He’s playing inspired football,” linebacker Danny Clark said. “I think he has a point to prove to people and to prove to himself that he’s still one of the best people in this game, and he’s done that. … I’m sure he had some critics out there. But he’s still Warren Sapp. They call him the quarterback killer for a reason.”

Sapp’s surge up the middle has helped the entire defense. Derrick Burgess credits Sapp’s presence for his seven sacks coming off the edge. Clark said the play of the defensive line has helped him and rookie linebacker Kirk Morrison roam sideline to sideline to make tackles. And an inexperienced secondary thinned by injuries has held its own because of the pressure up front.

In all, the Raiders have 17 sacks less than halfway through this season after getting only 24 all of last year.

“I feel like we’re in the right situation with Warren,” defensive lineman Bobby Hamilton said. “He seems comfortable. He’s playing like he did in Tampa. He feels good. That’s his game.”

When you see a guy like that it pulls you to another level, too. … This guy is happy in the right situation and it’s helping everybody play together.”

On a team full of big-name stars, only Sapp has played up to his billing. Randy Moss has been slowed by injuries and hasn’t come close to being the dominating threat he was in Minnesota. Charles Woodson is sidelined up to two months with a broken leg and Kerry Collins has been solid, not spectacular.

Sapp, on the other hand, is playing with the enthusiasm of a rookie, the savvy of a veteran and the skill of a player in his prime. He can also be seen smiling in the locker room, joking with teammates and trash talking opponents much more than a year ago.

“The thing about it is, the only way you have fun is to go out and play the game the right way. Get up on people, be able to sack quarterbacks, go for first downs, kicking game’s alive, the crowd’s alive,” he said. “That’s when you’re having fun. Being in the middle of a dogfight, there’s time for a little levity, a little jokes and stuff like that, but we’ve been fighting to come back and put ourselves in position to win.”

AP-ES-11-03-05 1633EST

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