The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are defending Super Bowl champions, they're 2-1 through three weeks, their one loss came on the road against another prime NFC contender and their passing attack appears capable of almost anything. But when it's a Monday after a loss – even if it's your first loss in 11 games – it's hard to relish in the good things when there are actual significant problems that need to be resolved.
Perhaps the biggest one for the Buccaneers is that, through three games, the defense has generated only three sacks and ranks last in the NFL in sacks per pass play (2.08%). This comes as an early 2021 surprise because Tampa Bay's defense tied for fourth in the league with 48 sacks last year, showed off an absolutely dominant pass rush in the playoffs and then managed to return every single key defensive player. The Bucs even spent their first-round draft pick on outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka to try to round out the edge rush.
But the Buccaneers have nine fewer sacks than they had through the first three games last season, and the lack of pressure on Matthew Stafford was particularly glaring in Sunday's 34-17 loss to the Rams in Los Angeles. In wins over Dallas and Atlanta to start the season the Bucs got only one sack in each game but did have stretches where the pass rush clearly affected the game. That wasn't the case in Los Angeles after a couple of early rushes made an impact, as Stafford spent most of the last three quarters operating in a very clean pocket. He wasn't even slightly pressured on his 75-yard touchdown bomb to former Buccaneer DeSean Jackson early in the third quarter, and that was essentially the play that put the game out of reach.
"Yeah, the sacks are probably the biggest thing that disturbs me because we can rush the passer," said Head Coach Bruce Arians on Monday after reviewing the Rams game tape. "Now, we're getting close; we're not finishing deals. In the first [quarter]…think back to the start of the game. Joe gets a good pressure, incomplete; Devin [White] gets a good pressure, incomplete; all of a sudden the pressures are gone and it's bam, bam, bam, here we go."
The Bucs got Stafford and company off the field quickly on L.A.'s first two possessions and outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett was also credited with a quarterback on third down on an opening-drive three-and out. But cornerback Jamel Dean dropped an easy interception on an errant deep ball and shortly afterward suffered a knee injury. With starting cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting already on injured reserve with an elbow ailment, the Buccaneers spent most of the day with the relatively inexperienced Dee Delaney getting major snaps. Arians actually praised Delaney's play but the secondary just couldn't hold up with Stafford having so much time to survey the field.
"You can't ask our secondary, especially with the shape it's in, to go play a ton of man-to-man, which limits you," said Arians. "The ball's not going to be held for sacks to happen. It's a little bit of both. We've got to do a better job of getting some man-to-man pressures and going in there and getting after the quarterback. And then also when we're playing zone we've got to get home. The secondary and the front is just not right now meshing very well."
Barrett had a sack in the season opener but none since and he's averaged one quarterback hit per contest. The Bucs expect him to be the leader of their edge-rushing corps, especially with Jason Pierre-Paul currently out with a shoulder injury. Arians and the Buccaneers fully expect the pass rush to be much more productive in the games to come, and it starts with Barrett, who had 27.5 sacks in his first two seasons as a Buccaneer.
"I think…Shaq knows it's time to get to the quarterback," said Arians. "He got shut out in this game. People are very aware of him but that's not an [excuse]. He needs to get to the quarterback, as do a bunch of other guys, and finish it when you get there. Just one sack is not good enough."
Next up for the Bucs' defensive front is the New England Patriots and rookie quarterback Mac Jones. Tom Brady's return to Gillette Stadium will obviously be the overwhelming storyline for that prime-time contest on Sunday, but how the Buccaneers pressure Jones into mistakes could be the deciding factor. So far, the Patriots have given their young passer pretty good protection, with six sacks allowed an a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 5.00% that ranks 12th in the league. That will be a focus this week in practice.
"It's just a thing we've got to iron out," said Arians. "When we're playing coverage, we're not rushing and when we're rushing we're not playing coverage. It's a matter of just getting it fixed and ironing it out and hopefully [we] get on the board this week. Make sure we make those corrections and get it done this week."