Michael Bennett believes the Tampa Bay Buccaneers could have the best defense in the NFL in 2012. It's not a prediction so much as a lofty goal, and Bennett himself may have a lot to do with how close it comes to being reality.
The offseason is a time of optimism in all 32 NFL cities, of course, and Bennett should aim high. The Buccaneers would have to improve tremendously from 2011 to approach the top spot, after ranking 30th in overall defense and 32nd against the run last season. But there has been a tremendous amount of change since the end of 2011, beginning with the arrival of Greg Schiano and a whole new coaching staff. The Bucs are expected to play a more aggressive, up-tempo and disciplined defense under Schiano and coordinator Bill Sheridan. The Bucs have also added safety Mark Barron, linebackers Lavonte David and Najee Goode and cornerback Keith Tandy through the draft, and used free agency to import cornerback Eric Wright, defensive tackle Amobi Okoye and several others.
There was, unfortunately, one unwelcome development along the way, too. In May, second-year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers suffered a torn Achilles tendon during a non-contact workout and subsequently had reparative surgery. Bowers had started the last third of his rookie season at left end and was expected to be a key element in the Bucs' attempt to improve their pass rush in 2012.
"That's a huge loss," Schiano admitted on Tuesday, as his team finished up the first day of its three-day offseason-capping mini-camp. "In sports, you move on. You fend, but you can't overlook that. He was set to have a great year, I thought. Now, we're going to get him back, I hope, but it's going to be later in the year rather than earlier."
That, of course, is where Bennett comes in. The fourth-year lineman started the first 10 games of 2011 at left end and is the presumptive choice to move back into that number-one spot after Bowers' mishap. The Buccaneers already had high hopes for Bennett's contributions in 2012 but now will have to rely on him even more while Bowers is out.
"I felt good about him before Bowers went down, to be honest with you," Schiano. "I watched the tape when we got here and I thought he was a productive player in 2011. I'm glad that he's here now."
Bennett happens to be one of two young defenders whose 2011 fortunes mirrored those of the team overall. Bennett was one of the team's top run defenders, and in fact one of the better run-stopping defensive ends in the league, during the first third of the year as the Buccaneers opened with a 4-2 record. Mason Foster, who was thrown into the difficult middle linebacker position as a rookie starter, made a series of splash plays in the season's first five games, including two sacks, three quarterback pressures, two tackles for loss and a forced fumble.
However, Bennett struggled with a foot injury down the stretch and wasn't able to contribute nearly as much in the second half of the year. Foster continued to start every game in the middle and play as hard as ever, but he produced fewer game-changing plays as the season wore on. The good news for the Buccaneers is that both Bennett and Foster have looked better and better as the 2012 offseason has progressed, and it looks as if they will be able to build on their strong starts from last fall, but in a new scheme.
"Michael's feeling better," said Schiano. "The last, probably, six workouts he's been feeling better and you can see him moving much better with his foot. Not that it was holding him back very much but it's just that he was able to really let it fly. He's still not 100%, but hopefully by training camp he will be."
Bennett is generally an optimistic, even-keel personality anyway; even during the rough times for him and the team last winter he stayed outwardly positive. But he's clearly feeling comfortably in the new defense and in the larger role that developed suddenly when Bowers went down.
"I'm just working hard every day, trying to get better," said Bennett. "In life you just keep progressing, and it's just like that in football, just keep progressing. I'm trying to learn everything new and the plays are becoming easier to digest. We have a new defense and everybody's adjusting at the same speed and at the same rate, learning this new scheme."
Foster didn't have a lingering injury to overcome this spring, but he did face the task of learning his second defense in as many NFL seasons. Recently, his learning curve has begun to accelerate upward steeply, as has that of many of the rookies as they begin to feel comfortable in Schiano's attacking scheme.
"I think he has impressed me more the last, probably, 10 days to two weeks," said Schiano. "He's getting it a little better. I think everybody is learning to play more downhill at the linebacker spot. That's how we want to play. But when we you do that, it shortens your reaction time, right? Because the closer you get to what you're looking at the less time you have to react. I think they have to gain that confidence and that comfort level to be able to play downhill consistently."
Fortunately, neither Foster nor Bennett lack in confidence. And, yes, Bennett really does have sky-high hopes for 2012.
"I think the players here have confidence, and Coach preaches that every day," he said. "A lot of things happen last year and people had their heads down. We've got to understand that the NFL starts over every year and you get a new chance. We've got to attack our chance and make the best of it. It's a new season and I feel like we can be the best defense in the NFL. It's coming around. We're just trying to work hard and show who we are."
On Monday, Special Teams Coordinator Bob Ligashesky identified four players who have been getting looks as potential return men on special teams in recent weeks. Two – wide receivers Preston Parker and Sammie Stroughter – have already worked extensively in that role in their young careers with the Buccaneers. Two – wide receiver Mike Williams and running back Michael Smith – have not.
With Smith, that's obviously because he just arrived in April as one of the team's two seventh-round picks in the 2012 NFL Draft. He did work some as a kick returner during his collegiate career at Utah State and the Buccaneers are obviously interested to see what his 4.32 40-yard dash speed and short-area quickness could translate into on special teams. Williams hasn't returned any kicks for the Buccaneers in his two seasons in the league, in part because he has been the team's top receiving threat during that span, but he was known as a very good open-field runner at Syracuse.
Obviously, a demonstrated ability to produce big plays in the kicking game will help whoever has designs on the return job. However, the current coaching staff considers ball security the single most important goal of a return man. That's why Ligashesky has had his return candidates engaging in a number of interesting drills this offseason, such as one where they try to field punts and kicks while already holding on to several other footballs.
"Specifically, it's about focusing in on the football and catching the ball," he said. "I think we as a football team agree that the most important thing is the ball. The most important thing as a returner will be catching the football."
Taking a Position
The Buccaneers are still a couple months away from final decisions on several depth chart questions, such as who will start at weakside linebacker and how the running back rotation will play out. Schiano and his staff will wait to see what happens when the pads go on and the live action begins in the preseason.
However, a handful of Buccaneer players have seen their duties clarified a bit during the three months of the team's offseason program. Recent changes to the team's roster indicate some players who are taking on more versatile roles and others getting more specific job definitions.
For instance, Ronde Barber, who has been listed as a cornerback on the team's roster for a decade and a half, is now listed as a "DB," for defensive back. That's a nod to the fact that he has been playing mostly safety this spring and is a potential fit for the Buccaneers' lineup at several different spots. Rookie Keith Tandy, the team's sixth-round pick in the 2012 draft, and second-year man Devin Holland, who spent much of last year on injured reserve, have also been switched to "DB."
Defensive Backs Coach Ron Cooper explains that versatility in the secondary will help the team significantly when it comes to choosing which 46 players to keep active on game day this fall.
"I know in professional ball there's a willingness to learn," said Cooper. "You get a guy that can understand corner, can understand nickel, can understand dime, can understand safety, and you get a group of guys that can be interchangeable, that's probably what I think it takes in this league. It's going to take a group of guys. There's nobody just set in at corner, nobody set in nowadays as just a safety.
"I mean, there's one or two guys [that are set] but everybody else better have some variety to you where you can do several things. The best guys will get on the field and we're just getting to know them. I think all corners can play safety; a few safeties can play corner; all of them need to be able to play nickel or dime."
Schiano has been impressed with the talent he's seen in his secondary-in-the-making this spring, to the point that he fears the "good problem" of eventually having to let go of a player who could succeed in the NFL. That means the competition at corner and safety should only heat up as the team hits training camp, and displaying an ability to do more than one job could help a young player.
"We want to get the best 11 on the field, then after that you want to get the next best 11," said Schiano. "Obviously, you usually don't go with all the seconds in there, but when someone has to go in or you want to give a guy a rest, who's the next best? And sometimes it's not the next best single guy; it might be a swing guy. He's the next best player. He might go in at either corner or either safety. That's what we're trying to figure out right now."
On the defensive line, Bennett has been changed from his previous "DL" designation to simply "DE." That seems to indicate that, while he has in the past seen action on both the inside and on the edge, the Bucs they will need him exclusively at defensive end after Bowers' injury.
On the other hand, third-year player E.J. Wilson has been switched from "DT" to "DL." That's actually the third designation he's had since joining the Buccaneers in January of 2011. Though he came in as a defensive end, the Bucs tried him on the inside in training camp and were intrigued by the results before Wilson suffered a season-ending injury. It's likely that the current "DL" listing indicates the team's belief that Wilson can potentially help at either end or tackle, or perhaps both.
A few offensive players have seen their position listings adjusted, too. Most notably, a pair of young tights are now shown with the expanded "FB/TE" designation – second-year man Zack Pianalto and rookie Drake Dunsmore, the Bucs' second seventh-round pick in April. This may indicate that the Bucs could make use of a hybrid "H-back" type of role in their offense. Erik Lorig already had that "FB/TE" designation last year (he was originally a defensive end who converted to offense in his 2010 rookie campaign) but mostly played in a traditional fullback role.
Three of the Buccaneers' younger offensive linemen have seen their position designations expanded slightly as well. Rookies Desmond Wynn and Mike VanDerMeulen and third-year veteran Derek Hardman are all now listed as "G/T," indicating that they are seen as potential depth at both guard and tackle. Wynn and VanDerMeulen, both undrafted rookie signings this spring, came in with tackle and guard designations, respectively. Hardman was listed as a tackle on the Bucs' 2011 roster but was a starter for a portion of the 2010 season at right guard after an injury to Davin Joseph.