The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent the first two months of the 2018 offseason adding piece after piece to their defensive line, in hopes of spiking a pass-rush that produced a league-low 22 sacks last year. Two of the additions are proven edge rushers in Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry, who have single-season career highs of 16.5 and 9.0 sacks respectively. Others, like first-round draft pick Vita Vea and free agency additions Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, are expected to draw blockers and free up others to find entry into the backfield, while providing some push of their own.
All those additions will hopefully allow six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy to threaten his own single-season high of 9.5 sacks and unlock the potential of third-year edge rusher Noah Spence, who had 5.5 sacks as a rookie in 2016. There is one more player on the Bucs' roster who has a seven-sack season (and another five-sack season) on his NFL resume, but he's not often mentioned when solutions to the team's anemic pass rush are being sought.
That's likely because he won't be found in the defensive line's meeting room. That player is linebacker Lavonte David, who contributed 18 sacks in his first five seasons (2012-16), peaking at seven in 2013, when he was a first-team Associated Press All-Pro selection. David had another fine season in 2017, and he's still very much in his prime, but for the first time he finished a campaign without a single quarterback takedown.
Running next to David is linebacker Kwon Alexander, who put together his own Pro Bowl campaign in 2017, his third year. Alexander has shown some pass-rushing prowess from the MIKE position, as well, with a total of six sacks over his first two years. He, too, was shut out in that department in 2017. Ideally, a 4-3 defense will get pressure on a quarterback with just its four down linemen, freeing up more players in coverage. However, a linebacker with the ability to shoot gaps and surprise the offense from time to time can be another valuable component to a defense.
Second-year player Kendell Beckwith has pass-rushing skills, as well, and was actually used quite extensively as a stand-up end in the second half of last season, due to injuries along the line. And rookie Jack Cichy, a sixth-round pick out of Wisconsin, had 6.5 sacks for the Badgers in the 2015-16 seasons combined before missing last year with a knee injury. However, if the Bucs are going to get significant pass-rush help from their linebacking corps, it's probably going to come from David and Alexander, in part because they will be on the field for virtually every snap.
It's fair and probably not inaccurate to believe the lack of impact made by the front line in 2017 impacted the opportunities for those two linebackers to invade the backfield, as their combined sack total dropped from eight in 2016 to none last year. But Linebackers Coach Mark Duffner says that David and Alexander can do more on their own to get back to racking up the sacks.
"I think really as much as anything, we've got to get better at our technique," said Duffner. "Some of that's timing, some of that's footwork, some of that's awareness. So, regardless of any of the other things, it's our responsibility at linebacker, as blitzers, to make the quarterback feel us.
"Sometimes, it's not a sack. You can be dog-gone good blitzer, but if you can get the quarterback off the spot or you can get him to hurry throwing the football, that's a plus. Now, we'd love to get sacks and we'd rather get sack-fumbles, but when we blitz, the quarterback has to feel us. That's when I think that the blitz is not successful if he's not affected. If we affect the quarterback in a hurry or a batted pass or something, we'd love to get the sack, that's kind of the ultimate, but anything else that changes their timing is a plus for us."
If David, in particular, can approach the quarterback more often, he might be able to put into play one of his skills that was very much in evidence last year. David had five forced fumbles last year, which tied for second in the NFL and was just one off the lead, and he has 17 of them over the last five seasons. That forced-fumble total since 2013 is also second in the NFL, to Robert Quinn's 19, and David is the only 4-3 linebacker with more than a dozen in that span. Combine that obvious talent with a hit on the quarterback and the Buccaneers might get a few more of one of the most valuable plays in the game, the strip-sack.
"He really bought into getting after the football," said Duffner. "We talk to all of our players about [how] it's all about the ball, and I think his conscious effort in that regard paid off in terms of production. Now, I want him to be more conscious in his effort this year if he will, and he will. I'm very pleased about Lavonte but I also have a very high standard for him and I'm anxious for him to climb in his play."
If the reloading of the Buccaneers' defensive line proves to be as successful on the field as it looks on paper, the linebackers should have cleaner looks and a lot more room to roam, as David himself noted after the team drafted Vea. That will probably be seen most in the run defense, where the 2017 Bucs ranked 23rd in yards allowed per game and 24th in yards allowed per carry. But it could also create some gaps for David and Alexander to shoot through, whether it's on a designed blitz or it's simply a read by the 'backers.
And yes, the Bucs' linebackers are hoping for that effect to be obvious. Once again, however, Duffner wants to keep the responsibility for his group producing more on his own players.
"Heck, we've got to protect [the linemen], too," said the coach. "The linebackers have to do the job relative to the front. But these guys have been really productive players, and they've been run-pluggers, if you will, and gap-stuffers. Any time a defense has a line up front that's productive, you would hope the linebackers would correspond with that, and that will be our objective. We're going to do our very best to fit our holes and do what we're supposed to do in coverage and play off the front. That's why they go hand-in-hand. We can't be good without both of them working together. If the line's playing well, the dag-gone 'backers better be, and vice versa."