It’s evident how very much improved the Bucs’ pass rush is this year. With the shift to a base 3-4 alignment, the emergence of outside linebackers for the Bucs has been instrumental in getting after opposing quarterbacks. The Bucs have 33.0 sacks this year through 12 games, just five shy of their total from 2018. In particular, outside linebacker Shaq Barrett is on pace to break franchise single-season records and currently leads the league in sacks (14.5) and forced fumbles (6). He’s helped the Bucs as a team to a fourth-ranked 16 forced fumbles on the year and Head Coach Bruce Arians says that’s no accident.
“Obviously, [we’ve been] rushing the passer extremely well for the last few weeks,” Arians said following Sunday’s win over Jacksonville. “On the back end, we’re holding our guys [and] we’re covering our guys. The quarterback’s not having the quick throws. And then, when we are sacking them, we’re knocking the ball out of their hands and I think Larry Foote does a great of job teaching those guys when they turn the corner to find the ball and [force a] strip-fumble. That part of it, I think, was the best thing I watched on film.”
A majority of those have come at the hands of opposing quarterbacks, too. So not only is the Bucs’ defense getting to the quarterback, they’re taking it a step further and actually taking the ball away right then and there, which Arians calls the more impressive stat for Barrett individually.
"Usually, that’s a linebacker that’s hitting people like Lavonte [who] has the [franchise] record,” Arians said. “For a guy that gets sacks and then strips the ball, that’s a very rare guy. JPP (Jason Pierre-Paul) has that knack also. But, yeah, I think probably the strips.”
Not to take anything away from Barrett, but 10 of those aforementioned 16 forced fumbles have actually come at the hands of outside linebackers. Five different ‘backers, to be exact. Yes, Barrett has the majority of them but it’s a point of emphasis for his position group. Outside linebackers coach Larry Foote regularly runs drills that stress ball awareness and taking it away.
"It’s coached,” Arians said of a player’s ability to take the ball away. “We work on it constantly – turning the corner [and thinking], ‘Where’s the ball? Is it up here, is it down there?’ – and finding the ball, but don’t miss the tackle. We have slipped off a few times going for sack fumbles when we should’ve just got the sack. If you’re not seeing the ball, then you should be just tackling the guy. It’s something that’s both – you have to have the skill level to do it, but it’s also coached."
That’s all in line with the rest of the defensive philosophy under Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles.
“Whatever we’ve got to do to try to get the offense the ball back, we’ll try to do,” Bowles said earlier. “Turnovers are an emphasis all year, all the time. Like you said, sometimes they come in bunches [and] sometimes they don’t. They throw you the freebies, but you’ve got to work for a lot of them, as well.”
And it’s clear the Bucs have been working for them. Tampa Bay has the fifth-most takeaways in the league with 21, currently. Nine of those takeaways have come in the form of interceptions, meaning 12 have come as fumble recoveries - the fourth-most of any team in the NFL. It’s a vast improvement from a team that finished 22nd in the league in takeaways last year. So before you think sacks are the ultimate measure of a defense, maybe take a look at a stat that can actually change possession and put the offense in a better position. Bowles and his defensive staff certainly do.
View photos of Tampa Bay's Week 13 matchup against Jacksonville.