DT Warren Sapp and the rest of the Bucs' pass rushers gleefully invaded Drew Bledsoe's backfield on Sunday
Don't look now, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense is on pace for 96 sacks this season.
Yes, we recognize the flaw in that statement, but you can't blame us for our enthusiasm. The Bucs have played just one game in this highly anticipated season, but their pass rush is already playing with the intensity of December. Against the New England Patriots on Sunday, Tampa Bay sacked QB Drew Bledsoe six times, narrowly missing at least a half-dozen more.
"We've just got some good rushers," said Dungy, modestly, of the Bucs' relentless rush on Sunday. "When you can tee off – and they were pretty much playing a one-dimensional game after the first quarter – that allows you to tee off and I thought our guys rushed well."
On a day when the special teams had problems, the offense was promising but inconsistent and a mostly clamped-down secondary got beaten once or twice, the Bucs' pass rush was nearly unstoppable from whistle to whistle. From the Patriots' first possession (three straight backfield invasions led to two incompletions and a short Bledsoe scramble) to the final seconds (one sack and one near-takedown short circuited the Patriots' final chance), there was almost no alone time for Bledsoe in his own backfield.
Only once in all of 1999, during which the Bucs came up with 43 sacks, did they have as many as six in a game. It is possible, of course, that the same will be true in 2000; however, it is hard to imagine that occurrence after that opening-game performance. Defensive linemen Warren Sapp, Marcus Jones, Chidi Ahanotu, Anthony McFarland and Steve White all seem to be improving by the week, and the perfect blitz timing against the Patriots was a lethal complement to those front-line rushers.
Here's who got the six sacks in New England:
· Sapp, who frequently beat his men off the line on his first move and got 1.5 of those six; · Jones, who opened the game as the starting right end, and got one sack from that side but also spent a lot of time on the left side and combined with Sapp for a half a sack from that end; · White, who was just bumped out of the starting lineup this week by Jones but remains a key member in the rotation; · LB Shelton Quarles, who blitzed right up the middle for a first-down sack in the first quarter; and · CB Ronde Barber, who came on blitzes around the left corner on several occasions, getting Bledsoe once and nearly dropping him another time.
That kind of pass rush was exactly what the Bucs were hoping for when they game-planned for the Patriots.
"If you let (Bledsoe) get into a rhythm, he can kill you," said Sapp. "He's a great quarterback and he is going to be up to the challenge. We knew we had to pressure him because if you give him the time he'll pick you apart. You can't give great quarterbacks the opportunity. You have to put the pressure on them. That's what our focus was coming into this weekend's game. We accepted the challenge and came away with a good victory on the road."
Tampa Bay has ranked in the league's top three in defense each of the last three seasons and has surrendered the fewest points and the fewest yardage over that span. They could become the first team since the legendary Chicago Bears of the mid-'80s to rank in the top three for four consecutive seasons – they certainly looked capable of that on Sunday.
So how can this defense possibly get any better? Two ways come to mind.
One, the Bucs could turn up the turnover quotient. They have basically broken even in that category over the past three years, not usually the hallmark of a dominant defense. However, down the stretch in 1999, they forced 22 turnovers in the last eight games and won seven of those contests. In the 2000 preseason, the Bucs led the league in takeaways and turnover ratio and rode those numbers to a 3-1 mark.
Or, two, they could turn up the heat on the pass rush. The Bucs set a team record with 44 sacks in 1997 and nearly matched that last year. However, the league's top total in '97, owned by the New Orleans, was 59, and Jacksonville and St. Louis each had 57 sacks last year to lead the NFL. In fact, there were five defenses last year that recorded 50 or more sacks. As fearsome as the Bucs' pass rush has been, there is definitely room for more – more sacks, more turnovers…more impact.
And maybe we saw the beginning of that in Foxboro on Sunday. While keeping in mind that the Patriots are a team in transformation on the offensive line, it is hard to dismiss the image of the Bucs roaming free behind New England's line of scrimmage. And it's hard to keep from thinking about what that means for the rest of the season.