The Tampa Bay Buccaneers expect to suit up this Sunday against the New Orleans Saints without emerging star defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, and perhaps for a few more games after that. The team's leader in both quarterback pressures and tackles for loss sustained an ankle injury against the San Francisco 49ers last weekend and is considered "week-to-week" by Head Coach Raheem Morris.
That is definitely not what is meant by the term "addition by subtraction." However, rookie defensive end Da'Quan Bowers is hoping he can help fill the void with a little simple math of his own.
On Wednesday, when the Buccaneers took the field at 1:00 p.m. for a two-hour practice, Bowers began the process of shifting, at least temporarily, from end to tackle. In the technical parlance used by the Bucs' defense, he is moving from his usual position as a "five-technique" end to McCoy's "three-technique" tackle position, a slide down towards the interior of the line of two landmarks or one spot on Tampa Bay's four-man front.
Bowers says it is a relatively simple transition for him, even though he will go from the wide-open spaces at end down to the constant mayhem inside.
"There's no difference," said the 2011 second-round pick. "Playing five-technique at the defensive end is almost identical [to three-technique], except you're a spot down. Just transfer all the technology and you're good."
The numbers in the "three" and "five-technique" designations refer to shoulders of the opposing offensive lineman for one-gap defensive linemen. These positions line up in the gaps rather than directly across from the blocker, and the numbers begin at the center. The center's shoulder is "one," the guard's inside shoulder is "two" and his outside shoulder is "three," and so on. Whether playing the three or the five, the pass-rusher attempts to get off the ball quickly and penetrate the backfield through one of the gaps. Bowers says he can just as effectively do that one spot down the line.
"With my size and my speed I have a lot of three-technique in me, so it's not going to be a hard transition for me at all," said the confident rookie. "I'm looking forward to it. I'm actually looking forward to my first practice, helping out Frank [Okam] today. As long as I'm getting off the ball…my key is to get off the ball as fast as I can and make plays. If I'm at defensive end or if I'm at three-technique, it's all the same."
Bowers knows he isn't being asked to morph into a perfect Gerald McCoy replacement. The Bucs will also utilize Okam at the three-technique spot, believing Okam's bulk and strength (he's 6-5 and likely north of 350 pounds) will help them control the middle against the opposing run game. It helps that Okam played extensively, and played well, when McCoy missed the last five games of 2010 due to injury. In fact, Okam received very good reviews for his work against the Saints in last year's season finale, pitching in with three solo tackles and a fumble recovery in the Bucs' upset win.
"Our mantra is, 'Next guy up,'" said Okam. "This happened last year and I got a chance to play a little bit and try to take advantage of that. We have me and Da'Quan there right now and we're going to do our best to fill this void because he's our every-down player on the inside. The things that he does…I have different strengths than Gerald has and Quan has some of the similar things that Gerald does, pass-rush wise. We'll just mix and match our strengths to the personnel that they're doing and try to take advantage of that."
The Bucs have successfully used versatile ends on the inside of their line in recent years, getting some extra value out of the likes of Michael Bennett, Tim Crowder and Kyle Moore, to name a few. Bowers might be a more natural for the switch than any of them, however, because of his size and power-oriented game. For him, it's actually a matter of returning to his gridiron roots, and he seems to actually be relishing the idea.
"I actually started at three-technique my first time playing football," said Bowers. "I played there some in college. But this is my first shot at it in the NFL. I'm looking forward to it. I'm getting adjusted and I'm ready to go."
The Next Step for Johnson
In the chain-reaction D-Line shuffling that Buccaneer coaches have enacted in the wake of McCoy's injury, it could be the least known of the team's pass-rushers who makes the strategy a success.
The Buccaneers don't want to strengthen one position (defensive tackle) at the expense of another (defensive end), but they believe they can move Bowers without running into that problem. That's because first-year man George Johnson was waiting on the practice squad.
On Monday, Johnson got the promotion that almost seemed inevitable ever since his top-notch preseason performance, when he led the Buccaneers with three sacks. Johnson didn't make the 53-man roster initially in 2011, but he has spent the first five weeks on the Bucs' practice squad and always seemed to be a likely call-up at some point.
Bowers move to the middle leaves the Bucs one short at left defensive end, but they'll move Crowder from the right side to the left, where he played extensively in 2010. That shifts the void to right end, where Johnson will now be available to spell rookie Adrian Clayborn. Bowers says that Johnson has just as real of a chance to make an impact in McCoy's absence as he or Okam does.
"There are going to be some changes made, but it's an 'opp' for a lot of us," said Bowers. "George Johnson got moved up so it's an opportunity for him to come make a statement. Myself, going to the three-technique and helping out Frank Okam – that's going to be a big opportunity for me. We're going to miss his presence on the line but we've got to all step up and play a little bit harder."
Johnson has been working hard to develop this opportunity since the spring of 2010, when he was passed over in the NFL Draft and then, more surprisingly, in the undrafted free agent signing flurry that followed. Johnson did get a call from the Buccaneers to participate in their post-draft rookie mini-camp on a tryout contract, as did dozens of others in his position. Johnson stood out from the crowd and got a more permanent spot heading towards training camp. He later ended up on Tampa Bay's practice squad and then, briefly at the end of the regular season, on the active roster, though he did not appear in any games.
This time around, Johnson should have a helmet on for game day as a part of the Bucs' active D-Line rotation. That means something for a young NFL underdog who sat in the Buccaneers' lobby one spring morning in 2010 and told a reporter he "had to" make it in the NFL.
"It feels like a bigger step towards accomplishing all the things I want to accomplish," said Johnson of his most recent promotion.
It's not surprising that Johnson has been nurturing his NFL dream for some time. He was a heavily-recruited pass-rushing prospect coming out of high school in New Jersey, and he ended up close to home at Rutgers. There, his development was slowed on several occasions by injuries, but he was healthy as a senior in 2009 and felt he had put his game completely back together. That season, he recorded 6.5 sacks and 13.5 tackles for a loss…but he still didn't hear his name on draft weekend.
Fortunately, he got his shot with the Buccaneers and has been working hard to make something out of it since. Now, the fun begins.
"It's just like everybody else's feelings – I have high hopes going in," he said. "When I come in, [it's] making sure there is no slack-off from McCoy or anything like that, make sure I play like the starters do.
"Like everybody says, you've got to be prepared. You've got to prepare like the starter because you're only one snap away at any given moment. You just need to be ready to play when the opportunity comes."
Seventeen months after he sat in the One Buc Place lobby and told himself that failing to make it in the NFL wasn't an option, Johnson is about to see his first regular-season action. That's an important step for him, but he says it's not anywhere near the end of the journey.
"I feel like I have a lot to prove," said Johnson. "My job is never done until I can officially retire as a Buccaneer."
On Wednesday, Morris said the "best cure" for a tough loss like the one the Bucs were handed in San Francisco is to get back onto the practice field and begin preparing for the next game. Thus, Tampa Bay players were able to apply some helpful psychic salve on Wednesday afternoon during a steamy two-hour practice that pleased Morris with its tempo and efficiency.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers also need some more tangible cures for a roster that is suddenly suffering from an overload of bumps and bruises.
In addition to McCoy and running back LeGarrette Blount, key players that Morris identified as significant question marks for the next few weeks, the Bucs were without four other players when they took the field on Wednesday: linebacker Mason Foster (ankle), tight end Luke Stocker (knee), wide receiver Sammie Stroughter (foot) and tight end Kellen Winslow (regular rest). In addition, another three were limited: linebacker Quincy Black (ankle), linebacker Zac Diles (hamstring) and tackle James Lee (knee).
Perhaps the most significant new development on that list is Foster's ankle. With McCoy already unlikely to play, another key performer missing from the middle of the defense would be a tough pill for the Bucs to swallow, no matter how sincerely they stick to their "next man up" mantra. In just six NFL games, Foster has quickly emerged as one of the Bucs' most productive defenders, as he leads the team in tackles (39) and is tied for the lead in sacks (2.0). Foster has also already accumulated two tackles for loss, three quarterback pressures, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery.