Last year, Jason Pierre-Paul Jason Pierre-Paul came over in a trade with the New York Giants and immediately became the best pass-rusher for his new team, racking up 12.5 sacks in his first year as a Tampa Bay Buccaneer. The best part is that we can now retire the phrase, "…haven't had a player reach double digits in sacks in a season since Simeon Rice in 2005," which at some point in the last couple years I was just cut-and-pasting from one story to the next.
I mean, it's fun to be reminded of Simeon Rice and his wonderful exploits in the Bucs' defense from that Super Bowl era, but it's even more fun to actually have a player on the team who can affect games in a similar way. In his prime, Rice was a player you could reasonably expect was going to get a sack every time he suited up; in the 2002 season he had at least one in nine different games and even had a streak of five straight multi-sack games.
Pierre-Paul came out firing in the same way to start his Buccaneer career, with at least one sack in nine of his first 12 games and in 10 of the 16 contests overall. He may have been slowed by season's end by the cumulative effect of a lot of minor injuries through which he had playing. Unfortunately, his chances of becoming the first Buccaneer with consecutive double-digit sack seasons since…well, Simeon Rice, of course, took a hit when he suffered a neck injury in an auto accident in May.
Even if Pierre-Paul doesn't get his consecutive 10-sack seasons for that reason, that doesn't mean the Buccaneers as a whole can't get that kind of streak going. Tampa Bay had at least one player reach that milestone every year from 1999 through 2005 (it helps to have Rice and Warren Sapp on the same team); at this point, doing so just two seasons in a row would feel like a major victory.
And that's our topic today as we finish up our week of Yes/No debates. For each of the questions below, staff writer Carmen Vitali and I have been arguing opposite sides, and this final discussion is no different. One of us thinks it will happen, the other does not. We'll find out later this year who was right and who was wrong.
Friday: Will any Buccaneer defender get 10 or more sacks this season?
Yes or no: Will any Buccaneer defender get 10 or more sacks this season?
Carmen Vitali: Yes
Yesterday, I said that I didn’t think two Bucs defenders would make the Pro Bowl and I’m about to make things a lot harder on myself by saying that the Bucs will, in fact, have a player that finishes with double-digit sacks and it won’t be Lavonte David. Should anyone else on the Buccaneers get 10.0 sacks, I’d really hope he’d make the Pro Bowl BUT as we saw last year with defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, that doesn’t always work out. Part of the reason JPP was overlooked is simply his position – wait, no, that’s not it. He was a 4-3 defensive end that ended up with 12.5 sacks. It must be his competition at his position across the league. Wait – Melvin Ingram of the Chargers made it with 7.0 sacks and 28 tackles? Demarcus Lawrence and Cam Jordan who both had 10.5 sacks made it, too? Last I checked 10.5 < 12.5.
Turns out, I don’t really have an answer for you why Pierre-Paul didn’t end up on the NFC’s Pro Bowl roster. What I do know is that it’s entirely possible that a 12.5 sack-performance doesn’t result in a Pro Bowl selection, so I may not be as contradictory to myself as I thought, initially.
Back to the task at hand. If I indeed think the Bucs will have a double-digit sack artist by the end of 2019 – exactly who do I think it’s going to be? I’ll tell you.
His switch in position as a member of Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles’ hybrid 3-4 system means as an outside linebacker, he’ll have to contest with guys like Khalil Mack, Dee Ford (now that he’s in the NFC) and Olivier Vernon - to name a few - if he wants to make the Pro Bowl. Unfortunately, that means that what happened to Pierre-Paul last year could repeat itself, but that DOESN’T mean Nassib won’t finish as a double-digit-sack player. Nassib’s career has been on an upward trajectory three years in and doesn’t show signs of leveling off any time soon. As a rookie in Cleveland, he saw limited playing time, starting three of 14 games and ending the 2016 season with 2.5 sacks. The next year he played in all 16 games for the Browns, starting 12 and registering 3.0 sacks. Last year in his first season for the Buccaneers? He had 6.5 sacks, more than doubling his previous year’s total. And I don’t think it was a fluke. Let me tell you - the man is a machine. He’s always in the weight room. Like, ALWAYS. He says it’s because he has no life. I say it’s because his life IS football and he has a ridiculous work ethic.
All his preparation is about to pay off in a big way that I think could translate into the first double-digit-sack season of Nassib’s career. His role as an outside linebacker will allow him to exploit mismatches off the edge, especially with guys like defensive linemen Ndamukong Suh and Vita Vea drawing blockers on the interior. The minute a tackle even thinks about helping on a double team of a guy like Suh, Nassib is free and clear to get through to the quarterback. The thing about Nassib too is that he’s smart. He’s an extremely intelligent player and truly understands the game. Combine that with how hard he works on the physical aspect of the game and this guy is a sleeper pick for the Buccaneer most likely to have a breakout season, mark my words.
Bowles’ defenses are kind to outside linebackers, too. Consider that in his first (and only) year as defensive coordinator of the Arizona Cardinals before he took the New York Jets’ head coaching gig, Bowles saw a 14th-year player flourish in his system. Outside linebacker John Abraham had 11.5 sacks in 2013, playing in all 16 games and starting 13 of them. Now, I know this system isn’t going to be exactly the same from Arizona – or New York for that matter – but if an outside linebacker in his 14th year in the league can have that kind of success under the direction of Bowles and his defense, imagine what a fourth-year guy on an upward trajectory could do?
If I had to pick out a couple other options, I’d definitely go with the two I mentioned earlier: Ndamukong Suh or Vita Vea. Suh has one double-digit-sack season under his belt from his rookie year in 2010. Vea is poised for a breakout season of his own after he finished the season strong last year. More likely, though, I think those two will end up in the realm of 5-6 sacks each and concentrate on drawing blockers away from the outside guys. There's always Noah Spence who is also making the transition to outside linebacker - a position he excelled at in college. If he can thrive under this system, he could be a possible double-digit candidate. I think we’ll see a major uptick in sacks from the inside linebackers, too. This defense certainly stresses pressure from that level and with the guys up front clearing the way – the likes of Lavonte David and Devin White will have their fair share of shots to the quarterback. HOWEVER, if both of them combined for 10.0 sacks that would be impressive enough. There’s a very, very slim chance either of them reach double digits, individually. So in the end, my money’s on Nassib, who will serve as a primary pass rusher in the absence of JPP for the time being.
View the top photos from the Bucs offseason practices.
Scott Smith: No
I'll admit that I'm a little worried about the Buccaneers' pass-rush heading into 2019, particularly with the uncertainty surrounding Pierre-Paul's availability.
I mean, I can see the same pieces as everyone else: Carl Nassib at least matches his production from last year; Shaquil Barrett takes his good work in Denver in limited playing time and doubles it with a lot more playing time in Tampa; Noah Spence finally emerges as an edge force in a defense better suited to his skills; Pierre-Paul is productive when he returns; Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh provide a push up the middle; Anthony Nelson adds some Nassib-level contributions; blitzing inside linebackers make their mark in an aggressive new scheme; maybe even David Kenney or Kahzin Daniels proves to be diamond in the rough.
And I don't have a particular problem believing any one of those things on their own. My worry is that you need a lot of those things to go the way you're hoping for it all to add up to an improved pass rush, or even one that matches last year's 38 sacks. That said, I think just such an outcome is actually more likely than any one Buccaneer defender getting 10 or more sacks this year.
Basically what I'm saying is that the 2019 Bucs could be the like the 2018 Ravens, who ran an aggressive defense with pass-rushers coming from all angles and got to the quarterback a good amount of times without any one player serving as the single dominant sack artist. Za'Darius Smith had 8.5 sacks, Terrell Suggs and Matt Judon each added 7.0, Patrick Onwuasor pitched in with 5.5 and then 12 other players got into the mix with at least a half-sack. It all added up to 43, which was good for a tie for 11th in the league in that category. The Detroit Lions tied that mark and also didn't have a single player with more than 7.5 sacks.
With Pierre-Paul possibly not getting 16 games to play in, it's tough to predict him reaching double digits in sacks again, though of course that would be wonderful if it happened. The only other player on the Bucs' current defense who has ever hit double-digit sacks in a season is Ndamukong Suh, and that was in 2010. Spence was promising as a rookie with 5.5 sacks and maybe he makes the leap this year, but that also feels like too strong of a prediction to make.
View the top photos of Vita Vea from the 2018 season.