It was third-and-17 near midfield, and Noah Spence just wanted to get home. The Jacksonville Jaguars never gave him the chance
For a pass-rusher, home is the space occupied by the quarterback. In NFL parlance, third-and-long is when defensive linemen "pin their ears back," forget about the run and just try to get home as quickly as possible. Most attempts to convert a third-and-17 are going to take a bit to develop, making it the perfect pass-rush situation. In this case, however, the Jaguars had quarterback Blake Bortles throw a quick slant to tight end Marcedes Lewis. Predictably it came up about 10 yards short.
"Last game I watched every one of our rushes and that ball was out of there in, like, two seconds," said Spence, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' promising second-year end. "It shows what we were doing all week to them. They didn't want that to happen in a game so they had to switch it up a little bit."
The Buccaneers and Jaguars spent two beneficial mornings practicing against each other in the week leading up last Thursday's game, and Tampa Bay's defensive linemen consistently fared well in one-on-one pass-rush drills. That may have contributed to some of the third-down play-calling decisions made by the Jaguars, particularly in a preseason outing with its typically vanilla gameplan. If so, that third-and-17 was an example of the Buccaneers' pass rush winning in a way that isn't immediately obvious in the postgame stats.
The Buccaneers finished the game with just two sacks, both by blitzing linebackers, and five quarterback hits. But they also held the Jaguars' starting offense to 59 first-half yards and a one-of-six performance on third downs.
"We had a good pass-rush, we just didn't get any sacks," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We had an excellent pass-rush during the week against Jacksonville. So they came out [and] the first two third downs they went quick-count to try to catch us off guard and the third third-down of the game it was third-and-17 and they ran a slant route. They went quick-game. Third-and-17 and a slant route, that's respect for your pass-rush. That means we've got to get the ball out of our hand fast. It's going to be hard to get a first down."
Much of that could apply to the Bucs' pass-rush last season, which was quite effective at times, perhaps a bit more so than the average observer realized. No, the Bucs did not have an individual defender with double-digit sacks for the first time since 2005, but as a team they tied for ninth in the league with 38. That was just four behind Denver and Seattle, a pair of vaunted pass-rushing defenses that tied for third in sacks. Moreover, the Buccaneers had the very best third-down defense in the NFL, allowing a conversion rate of 34.4%, which definitely had something to do with a good pass-rush.
Still, there's room for improvement there, and the Bucs' week in Jacksonville indicates that it may be on the way. Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has been to five Pro Bowls and defensive end Robert Ayers has 15.5 sacks in his last 24 games. It is Spence, however, who could take his own game, and therefore the Bucs' pass rush, to the next level. He might get on the field for more snaps, too, if the Bucs' efforts to see him in running situations pan out.
"He's giving us great effort, that's what we expect from everybody," said Koetter of Spence. "He's playing hard. He played a little bit more in the second half in run situations, trying to get some work in some first and second-down [situations], not just playing in sub defense. That's what preseason games are for, you're working on stuff."
Koetter made it clear that he doesn't particularly care if any one Buccaneer defender gets to 10 sacks this season, other than in how each takedown of the quarterback will help win ball games. As a young player, Spence would probably enjoy hitting an oft-referenced milestone like that, but he's also focusing on the bottom line. He may want to get "home" on any given play, but the goal is still earning victories. The Bucs' pass rush appears ready to help in that cause, whether or not it always shows up on the stat sheet.
"We still got the win, so it's not that big of a deal," said Spence of being shut out in the sack column Thursday. "We're definitely coming out here every day getting better."
- Koetter identified two spots on the depth chart that are among the best remaining competitions for the next three weeks: slot corner and fifth wide receiver.
The job in the slot is pretty easy to define, as it has come down to Javien Elliott and Robert McClain, with Jude Adjei-Barimah out with a leg injury. Koetter said those two are also training on the outside, and they combine with starters Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves and top outside-corner reserve Ryan Smith to form the first five on the depth chart. Thus, it's quite possible that the player that does not win the slot position will still have a spot on the 53-man roster.
It's more complicated at wide receiver, where the top four appear to be Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, Adam Humphries and rookie Chris Godwin. The Bucs may only keep five wideouts; if that's the case, it would be a crowded battle for one spot between Freddie Martino, Bernard Reedy, Josh Huff, Donteea Dye, Derel Walker, Bobo Wilson and Shaq Hill. All have had their moments, but time is starting to run short. The roster cut to 53 players is on September 2.
"All those guys that are battling have had days where we're saying, 'Yeah, that's our guy, that's our guy,'" said Koetter. "They've had other days where you're saying, 'Maybe that's our guy.' We've got three weeks left. We've got three weeks left 'til Miami and that's one of the better competitions, along with the starting nickel."
Reedy has helped his cause on special teams, 13.7 yards on three punt returns and 23.5 yards on two kickoff returns. He's also been efficient when thrown to, catching all five of the passes thrown in his direction for a total of 40 yards. Huff has two receptions for 13 yards plus a 10-yard end-around and a 37-yard kickoff return. Martino has two catches for seven yards. Dye has not yet been able to play in a game due to injury.
"Reedy's definitely shown in the return game, really shown up in the two preseason games," said Koetter. "Freddie Martino's more of a do-the-dirty-work stuff, he does some things behind the scenes. Josh Huff has had some nice plays; we're looking for a little bit more consistency. And then Donteea Dye's been out for a while with a foot injury."
Consistency is often what allows a young receiver to separate from the pack when roster decisions are nearing. It's also not easy to accomplish, and it's one of the reasons the team has been so impressed with Godwin. What could help the receiver hopefuls in the days to come is that practices are soon going to be transitioning from the installation of new plays to the perfection of ones already installed.
"You're still trying to install your package of stuff," said Koetter, referring to Saturday's practice as Install #11. "It's your encyclopedia of stuff that you're going to pull from during the regular season. We probably have enough volume installed for five or six gameplans, and we'll pull back out of this as we get to the season. We've got one more day of install tomorrow and then we can start to polish some things up after that."
- The Buccaneers will play their starters into the second half next Saturday against the Browns, as is the norm in the third week of the preseason. However, they will also pay heed to the unavoidable fact that first-string running back Doug Martin will not be available during the first three weeks of the season.
Jacquizz Rodgers is an obvious candidate to be the lead ball-carrier in Martin's absence (and even, potentially, beyond), as he did well in just that role in 2016. Rodgers has just seven carries through the first two games – fifth-most among Buccaneer running backs behind Peyton Barber, Jeremy McNichols, Martin and Charles Sims – but that will change on Saturday. Koetter explained why while running down the tailback depth chart on Saturday.
"McNichols looks like a rookie, he's learning, he's making rookie mistakes, playing a little bit tentative but how a rookie should be," said the coach. "McNichols reminds me a lot of where Peyton Barber was last year at this time. Peyton Barber looks like a guy who played last year and has a little confidence and some experience under his belt. I think Charles Sims has had an outstanding camp and Doug has had a real good camp. Jacquizz hasn't got very many chances; we'll try to give him some more chances this week against Cleveland."
Koetter also indicated that cornerback Brent Grimes is doubtful to suit up for the Cleveland game as the laceration on his leg continues to heal. That means Grimes will likely not see any preseason action, as the starters are usually rested in Game Four. Grimes was running on the field on Saturday, and Koetter said he would likely play if a regular-season game was up next.