DE Gaines Adams (left) picked up a sack and DT Chris Hovan lost an interception Wednesday due to a scoring change
For much of the season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' front four on defense has looked like a revolving door, with the team rotating tackles and ends much more liberally than in the past.
Lately, it has looked more like a swarm.
Without a specific focal point like a Warren Sapp or Simeon Rice in their primes, the Bucs have worked on generating a pass rush with all of their linemen, from the grizzled/green defensive end combination of Greg Spires, Kevin Carter, Gaines Adams, Greg White and Patrick Chukwurah to the interior rotation of Chris Hovan, Jovan Haye, Greg Peterson and Ryan Sims.
In recent weeks, the building chemistry of that group has been more evident. The Bucs had just eight sacks in their first five games, then got eight more in the next three. Tampa Bay didn't record a sack in its win over Arizona but the front line hassled Kurt Warner mercilessly and helped force 20 incompletions in 30 attempts. In Atlanta last weekend, White, Adams and Hovan combined for four sacks of Byron Leftwich to key a blowout, 31-7 win.
"We're getting to know each other and feeding off each other," said White. "That was our whole goal from the beginning, to come close together as a unit and then let it loose."
Seriously, this group is suddenly so hot that it's even picking up sacks in the middle of the week. Turns out that the defensive line actually produced five sacks against Atlanta.
That strange bit of news arrived at One Buccaneer Place on Wednesday, courtesy of a statistical review of the game by the Elias Sports Bureau, the official stat compilers for the NFL. As it turns out, a play that was originally interpreted as an interception has now been ruled a fumble recovery, and the result is an additional sack for Adams.
On the play, which occurred in the third quarter and set up the Buccaneers' third touchdown, Adams rushed off the right end and came around behind Leftwich in the pocket. As the quarterback cocked his arm to throw, Adams reached out and swatted down it. The football popped up in the air, traveled several yards forward and landed in Hovan's waiting arms.
The Elias review of the play determined that Leftwich's arm was not moving forward at the time it was hit by Adams. That means the loose ball is a fumble no matter which direction it traveled and whether or not it was caught in the air. In such instances, the player who knocks the ball away from the quarterback is credited with a sack.
Hovan, unfortunately, loses his first career interception and gets a fumble recovery instead. On the other hand, the added sack gave Adams his first career two-sack game and left the Bucs with one of their most dominant edge-rushing performances in a long time.
White, too, finished with his first two-sack game. The last time two Buccaneer players each had two sacks in the same game was almost three years ago, during a December 5, 2004 shutout win over Atlanta at Raymond James Stadium. Rice and linebacker Derrick Brooks were the multi-sack men that day.
The last time the Buccaneers had a pair of defensive ends that recorded two sacks apiece was in the previous decade. On September 19, 1999, ends Chidi Ahanotu (three sacks) and Marcus Jones (two) pulled off that feat; defensive tackle Warren Sapp also had three sacks that day as the Bucs made life hard on rookie QB Donovan McNabb.
White and Adams now stand first and third on the team with 4.5 and 3.5 sacks, respectively, this season. It appears as if White has pushed past the "rookie wall" and White is finding a hidden reserve of energy despite already playing an entire Arena League season before this one.
"We've just got to keep that thing rolling," said Adams. "I told [White] earlier that he's playing really well. If I can keep playing well and he can keep playing good, well good things will happen."
White and Adams frequently credit the team's veteran linemen – Carter, Spires and Hovan – for the obvious strides they are making this season. Those three have combined for just 4.5 sacks but they have been instrumental in bringing the unit together and creating opportunities for everyone.
"Building chemistry is one of the key elements of defensive line play, and we're finally starting to really get on the same page up front," said Carter. "We're trying to feed off each other, realize each other's strengths and feel each other on our pass rush. It's working out well so far for us, but it could be even better."
The Buccaneers switched out two of their eight practice squad spots on Wednesday, bringing back running back Lionel Gates and adding rookie guard Brian Johnson.
To make room for Gates and Johnson on the practice squad, the team released tackle Ryan Gibbons and cornerback Marcus Hamilton.
Gates is a familiar face at One Buc Place, which means of course that the Buccaneers' offense is familiar to him. He spent one game on the active roster earlier this season, seeing special teams action against Tennessee in Week Six.
The hard-running 6-0, 223-pound back first joined the Buccaneers last season, when he spent the majority of the fall on the practice squad. Gates earned a December 29 promotion to the 53-man roster but did not appear in the Bucs' season finale. He also went to training camp with the Buccaneers this played in four preseason games, tallying 15 carries for 48 yards and two receptions for 13 yards and a touchdown.
Johnson signed with the Arizona Cardinals as an undrafted free agent this past spring. He proved to be a very versatile performer at LSU, starting 12 games at right guard, 15 at right tackle and one at left guard. In 2006, the 6-4, 307-pound linemen was a second-team All-SEC selection.
Hamilton, a seventh-round draft pick by the Buccaneers in April, spent the first 10 weeks of the season on the practice squad. Gibbons had been on that unit for the last six weeks after signing on October 3.
The offensive backfield appears to be the Buccaneers' injury trouble spot this week, as two of the three players who didn't participate in Wednesday's practice were running backs. Fullback B.J. Askew (ankle), tailback Michael Pittman (ankle) and defensive end Greg Spires (calf) were all held out of the two-hour session.
Three other Bucs were limited on Wednesday, including wide receiver Joey Galloway, who isn't injured but is routinely given a light day to start the week. Wide receiver Michael Clayton is still recovering from an ankle injury, while Earnest Graham gives the Bucs' another running back on the injury report with his won ankle ailment.