Well, that would be Gerald McCoy and the rest of the Buccaneers’ defensive linemen, who sacked Ryan three times on the Falcons first two drives on Sunday, hit him another eight times during the game and hurried him throughout the Buccaneers' 41-28 win. That constant pressure led to a 53% completion rate, two interceptions and a 70.8 passer rating. Contrast that to the teams' first meeting four weeks earlier, when Ryan spent a comfortable, unharassed day in the pocket and completed 20 of 26 passes for 273 yards, three touchdowns, no interceptions and a bordering-on-perfect 148.4 passer rating.
We highlight McCoy because it was the Pro Bowl defensive tackle who logged all three sacks, and who was credited with four quarterback hits. His coach also credited him with setting the tone that would lead to the Bucs rushing out to a 38-6 advantage.
“The best part of it is it was right from the jump,” said Schiano. “I think we had two [on the first drive] and that to me was critical. It set the tone and you could see that. When you get to a quarterback early like that, his feet get a little bit nervous. That’s what we kept harping on all day – let’s keep getting him off the spot. Gerald, we challenged him. He played two All-Pro games the last two games. We said, ‘Can you do it? Can you do it week-in and week-out?’ And he showed up and did it, without a doubt.”
McCoy doubled his sack total in Sunday’s game, but that doesn’t mean his performance had been lacking during the first nine contests. As Schiano notes, McCoy has been playing at a Pro Bowl level again this season without necessarily racking up the stats. What was more concerning was that the defensive front as a whole wasn’t reaping the benefits of McCoy’s constant pressure up the middle. That changed on Sunday, when the pressure came at Ryan from every angle.
The Buccaneers will need similar production from the entire defensive line in their next outing, when they face another highly productive and hard-to-sack quarterback in Detroit. The Lions’ Matthew Stafford has been dropped just 12 times all season – Detroit ranks first in the league in sacks allowed per pass play – and has thrown for nearly 320 yards per game. But Tampa Bay believes it has at least one more pass-rushing weapon that is about to go off in the same fashion McCoy did against Atlanta: defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who has three sacks this season.
“I think Adrian’s playing really well,” said Schiano. “He’s playing well on first and second down as well as on third down. We’re trying to roll some guys through there. We’re trying to get as many guys involved in the action on the defensive front [as we can], but Adrian, I think he’s getting better every week. He’s accepting coaching very well, and, each game, he’s kind of figuring out a little different wrinkle that’ll help him, whether it’s in run defense or pass defense. The one thing that he’s done since he came into this league is he plays with great effort, so, as you take that effort and his ability and you couple it with a better understanding, I think he’s only going to get better and better.”
Still, it’s clearly McCoy that opposing teams are going to pay attention to first and craft their offensive game plans around. The fourth year player made his first Pro Bowl in 2012 and by all accounts is playing even better this season. In the last month, in particular, McCoy has been a constant presence in opposing backfields, though it didn’t start paying off in the form of sacks until last weekend. If McCoy maintains his current level of play – and there’s no reason to believe he won’t – his teammates up front are going to reap the benefits soon.
“Teams are going to adjust,” said Schiano. “They know where 93 is and they’re going to adjust protections. Now, you can’t just start sliding protections without having everything being coordinated. We try to work to get him the one-on-ones, and whether that’s on the center, whether it’s on either guard, we’ll move him around. We’ve even lined him up at end once this year. Those are all of our attempts, but at the end of the day Gerald does it because he’s a great player.”