In 2017, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers hope to apply pressure on opposing quarterbacks in unrelenting fashion, one wave after another. The recent addition of former Washington defensive tackle Chris Baker through free agency is the latest step in that plan.
"D-linemen don't play 100 percent of the plays; d-linemen are almost always in a rotation," said Buccaneers General Manager Jason Licht on the day Baker was introduced to the Bay area. "You can see we're really building great depth on our defensive line. Our inside three, [with Baker] joining Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald; what we've got coming back on the outside with Robert Ayers, signing Will Gholston back, Noah Spence, Jacquies Smith coming back off an injury – we're really excited about the group we're putting together."
There's a good reason for that excitement. The Buccaneers' 2017 roster, as it stands now, includes seven different defensive linemen who have had a season of five or more sacks in the last three years. Those seven have combined for 12 such campaigns in that span. That does not even include linebacker Lavonte David, who had his second season of at least five sacks last fall. The Buccaneers don't necessarily need any of their linemen to break into double digits this year – though they would certainly welcome that – in order to take their pass rush to the next level.
Of the seven linemen that Licht ticks off above, all but Gholston have hit that five-sack mark in a season, and Gholston's goal upon signing a five-year extension last week was to become an elite pass-rusher. That would be a very pleasant development for the Buccaneers, who already appreciate Gholston for his elite run-stuffing qualities. Add another mid-tier sack-man to the Bucs' deep group and the whole unit could be stifling. The seventh player on the Bucs' roster who has also had a recent five-sack season is George Johnson, who missed all of last year due to injury.
Tampa Bay's defense was not a bad pass-rushing unit in 2016. Their 38 sacks tied for ninth in the NFL, and their sacks-per-pass-play rate of 6.5% was also good for ninth. That pressure surely helped produce the Bucs' 29 takeaways, which ranked third in the NFL. But the Buccaneers don't just want to duplicate that formula, they want to rev it up even further.
That has obviously been a major team focus for more than a year now. The Buccaneers dipped into free agency for Ayers in 2016, then used a high second-round pick on Spence about two months later. Despite Ayers missing significant time due to injury and Spence playing most of his rookie season in a shoulder harness, they returned good dividends with a combined 12 sacks off the edge.
And now the Bucs have added Baker, who not only as two straight good pass-rushing seasons in Washington but who helps with that proposed rotation by being flexible enough to help in several spots.
"Chris has explosive quickness, he can get off blocks and make plays down the line," said Licht. "He brings rush ability, he brings versatility. Washington played a 3-4, so Chris has played defensive end in a 3-4. In the sub-package he's lined up as a three-technique, he's lined up as a nose. He's going to be playing both spots for us, he's going to fit in great."
WATCH: ONE-ON-ONE WITH CHRIS BAKER
Baker will probably find himself playing next to McCoy, the five-time Pro Bowler, on the majority of his snaps. He thinks that will allow him to make an even greater impact on his new team, and he's probably right.
"McCoy is very rare, he's one of the best in the league," said Baker. "[I've] never really had that opportunity to play with an elite defensive tackle. I'm licking my chops because it's like, 'Who are you guys going to pick to double?' You know what I mean? It's a great opportunity here, can't wait to get to work with those guys and just get out there and dominate."
Here's a look at how the Bucs' pass-rush could come together in a best-case scenario in 2017.
Interior pressure. McCoy flirts with double-digit sacks nearly every season and, barring injury, is practically a guarantee to do so again in 2017, perhaps finally breaking through. His amazingly quick "get-off" at the snap allows him to disrupt plays before they can develop and is the main reason he's been to the last five Pro Bowls. The Buccaneers had problems giving him enough help on the inside last year, though, thanks mostly to a string of injuries. McDonald played only 12 games but did have 3.5 sacks. Ayers, another injury victim as noted above, saw some action inside on passing downs but did most of his pass-rushing damage off the edge.
McDonald is healthy again heading into 2016 and now he's joined in the rotation by Baker, who had 4.5 sacks for the Redskins last year and another 6.0 in 2015. Though he's 29 years old, he really has only played significantly in the last four years and he is considered a player on the rise. The Buccaneers were not the only team that wanted a crack at Baker on the free agent market. Licht said the 320-pounder with quick feet could play both the three-technique and nose tackle spots. His presence should allow the Bucs to reduce the amount of interior-line snaps they need from Ayers and Gholston in 2016, though their versatility will still be put to use.
Edge rush. The Buccaneers have at least three ends they believe are good bets to increase their production over their 2016 levels. The most obvious candidate to do so is Smith, who was lost to a knee injury after playing exactly one defensive snap in the season opener. Smith had 7.0 sacks in 2015 and 6.5 in 2014 over a total of 23 games played, which means he averaged a steady half-sack per game for those two seasons. Thus, it would be no surprise to see a healthy Smith, used almost exclusively as a pass-rush specialist, hit eight sacks this coming fall, but even four or five would be a welcome addition to last year's team totals.
Ayers could improve upon his 6.5 sacks in his first year as a Buccaneer just being playing closer to 16 full games. He had 9.0 sacks in 2015 as a member of the New York Giants. Of all the Bucs' pass-rushers in 2016, Ayers turned in the highest percentage of his sacks on third downs, meaning he was adept at providing impact plays when the Bucs really needed them. The Bucs intended to use Spence mostly on pass-rushing situations in his rookie year but the aforementioned rash of D-Line injuries forced him into greater duty, which he handled well despite the shoulder injury. He hit his stride at midseason, with a run of 4.5 sacks over a six-game period, but may have succumbed at least a bit to the "rookie wall" [exacerbated by the shoulder injury], going sack-less over the last five weeks. Johnson could factor in as well, and, as mentioned above, Gholston will play a lot of snaps at end and expects to be more of a pass-rushing factor.
Blitz packages. Presumably, the Buccaneers would like to have a strong enough push from whichever four down linemen are on the field to minimize the need for blitzing. Still, every defense is going to send extra rushers from time to time, and Tampa Bay has a couple of good options. David had 5.0 sacks last year, not quite to his 2013 career high of 7.0 but still impactful. Kwon Alexander has had 3.0 sacks in each of his first two seasons and is fast and athletic enough to get even more if he's given more opportunities to rush the passer. Every foray by David and Alexander into the backfield isn't technically a "blitz;" sometimes it's simply prompted by a post-snap read based on what the running back in the backfield does. The result is the same – an extra rusher – and the Bucs have a couple intriguing ones.