On Wednesday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed veteran defensive end Darryl Tapp after regretfully placing their own young edge rusher, Noah Spence, on injured reserve. Tapp alone won't solve the Buccaneers' pass-rushing woes – Tampa Bay is last in the NFL with seven sacks so far – but given how significant that problem is, the team would be happy if he is just part of the solution.
"Well we hope that he can bring us some pressure because the way we've rushed the passer so far is not acceptable," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "It's not. I've got to do a better job of creating the situations where our guys can thrive. That's what coaching is all about."
Clearly, Smith is neither mincing his words on the subject nor seeking to shift blame. The lack of pressure on opposing quarterbacks is just one of the issues the Bucs have faced on defense through six games, but it tends to affect all of the others. A more robust pass rush would likely bring down opponents' gaudy third-down conversion numbers and give quarterbacks less time to hit explosive plays downfield against a struggling secondary. Pressure on the quarterback is also the best way to increase a defense's takeaway totals, and that was the winning edge for the Buccaneers last season when their defense started playing much better.
Not so this year, at least through six games. The Buccaneers only sacked Buffalo quarterback Tyrod Taylor once in last Sunday's narrow loss, and also let him escape the backfield for long runs on several occasions. Defensive end Robert Ayers had that one sack – his first of the year – but he still was far from satisfied with his performance or that of the entire front line.
"We've got capitalize on the opportunities," he said. "Just this last game I had opportunities where I could have made plays and didn't. Stuff like that, it bothers me and motivates me to try to get better. We've just got to make [the most of] our opportunities. We've been in situations to get sacks, we've been in situations to get fumbles and interceptions and to get off on the third down. We've just got to make plays. It's a play-makers league so we've just got to do that."
Tampa Bay's defense has yet to record more than three sacks in any given game this year and has only topped two sacks on one occasion. Over the past three seasons, the Buccaneers are 7-16 when sacking the opposing quarterback two or fewer times and 10-5 when getting him down three or more times.
"We've had our trials and tribulations in terms of getting pressure on the quarterback this year," said Smith. "We are trying to mix it up with things that we are doing schematically, we've added a player to replace Noah that has some experience, but we have not been able to generate the type of pass rush that you need to allow people in the back end to cover. And we've got to do a better job of covering guys."
Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
The fix is likely to be incremental – there isn't an elite, in-his-prime pass-rusher on the waiver wire waiting to be signed – and a mixture of those things Ayers and Smith mentioned. Taking advantage of opportunities; making schematic and play-calling changes; adding experienced depth; putting players in the best position to succeed. Ayers seemed to hit on another one while discussing the issue Wednesday: Players trying to do too much out of frustration.
"You starting being impatient with your rushes," said Ayers. "You start not trusting the game plan and the system. You start wanting to do too much. I feel myself trying to do that sometimes, and I think I did that last game. We're trying to do things, but we've just got to trust the process, trust my game, trust the work we've put in together and I think we'll be alright.
"I personally feel like there's nothing that we can't do. It's not like there's an issue that, 'Look, there's nothing the Bucs can do to fix this.' We just have to do it. There's a lot of opportunities out there that we just didn't make the plays."
As for Tapp, Smith says the 12th-year veteran "still has game" and should be able to help the Buccaneers. His career total of 28.0 sacks isn't overwhelming, and he has just three in the last three years combined, but his experience will help. Some of the Bucs' pass-rush and containment issues in Buffalo had to do with players not staying in their rush lanes or being where they were supposed to be on the field, according to Smith. Even if Tapp doesn't add a huge number of sacks, a dose of steady play from him could help create opportunities for others.
"This is the time of year, if you watch the wire, different teams are hurting at different positions due to injury, and this is the time of year that veterans like Darryl get picked up because they know what to do," said Koetter. "They can go in and help your team more than maybe a guy off the street that hasn't played before, like rookie free agent types of guys. There are several guys around the league that that's happening for and we're happy to have Darryl join us."
Ayers pointed out that he's been on teams that have had early-season struggles only to turn them around quickly. In fact, he was on one last year. He's also personally taken a slow start and turned it into a big season. In 2015, he had just two sacks through 11 games with the Giants but then racked up seven more over the next five.
Ayers believes that he and his teammates up front can get more out of their talents and find a healthy pass-rush. Smith considers it his job to make that happen.
"Ultimately it's the guy who is calling the plays and we're not getting it done," said the coordinator. "That's the bottom line. There is one guy that is held responsible and that is me. We've got to do a better job. We've got the players. The players are the players that we've got to play with. We are going to do our [best] to get them in the best position that we think gives them the best opportunity to win."