Pictures from the Buccaneers' practice on Wednesday.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' slightly-revamped defensive line had a very good 2017 opening game. Just don't look for proof of that on the defensive stat sheet.
Of the eight D-linemen active for the Buccaneers' dominant 29-7 win over Chicago on Sunday, only defensive tackle Chris Baker was not with the team last year. He did not record a tackle or a sack. Second-year defensive end Noah Spence, now rid of the shoulder harness that limited his range of motion last year, recorded Tampa Bay's only sack of Mike Glennon, who had gone down four times the previous week against Atlanta. Will Gholston, who got a lucrative new contract before hitting free agency in March, had five tackles but no hits on the quarterback. Five time Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy had three tackles, no sacks. Robert Ayers, Ryan Russell, Clinton McDonald and Sealver Siliga combined to add four tackles and zero sacks.
Of course, the proof, or at least a very strong hint, that Tampa Bay's defensive front was putting forth a winning effort on Sunday comes from the Bears' numbers: 20 rushing yards, no points until the game's final two minutes, no explosive plays in the entire game. While the team's rangy group of linebackers deserves a lot of credit for that, their job was made a lot easier by the havoc that was wreaked up front.
Baker's 25 snaps were an excellent example of that. His only mark on the stat sheet was a quarterback hit, which is a good thing in and of itself. On many other plays, however, his main contribution was tying up multiple blockers so other players could shake loose.
"Chris did a nice job," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "There were a number of times that both of our defensive tackles had four hands on them. What I mean by that is it's a double-team and they've got four hands in their zone-blocking schemes. When there is four hands on the three techniques and the one technique, that means our linebackers are going to have an opportunity to run free. That's the dirty work that guys have to do and people don't realize it. You look at a stat sheet and you say, 'Well, he didn't make the stat sheet. Well, three of [our] tackle-for-losses were because he kept the offensive guard and center or the tackle and guard occupied so our linebacker was able to run through."
The Buccaneers wanted to be more stout in the middle in 2017, and the free agency addition of Baker was a key part of that. Baker showed an ability to pressure the quarterback up the middle in Washington, and the Bucs believed they would be causing opposing lines problems by pairing him with McCoy in the middle. That proved true on Sunday.
"What Bake does is he holds the fort down definitely in the run game, and he just knows where he's supposed to be in the pass game," said McCoy. "Bake is who he is: He doesn't get moved in the run, pushes the pocket in the pass. That's what we brought him here to do and that's what he did. As long as he keeps doing that, we're going to have a lot of success."
The statistical rundown above does sell McCoy short. The number that jumps out from his line is four quarterback hits. He also had a tackle for loss on Chicago's very first play from scrimmage, as he exploded out of his three-point stance and immediately knocked left guard Tom Compton back on his heels. That gave McCoy a direct lane to running back Jordan Howard in the backfield, and he and Will Gholston made sure that the Bears' talented rusher didn't escape. The play was a three-yard loss and it gave the rest of the Bucs' defensive linemen an instant boost. They would go on to allow the eighth-lowest single-game rushing total in franchise history.
"Well it starts with 93," said Smith, referencing McCoy's jersey number. "There is no doubt about that. You win in this league by winning the line of scrimmage and he is a very disruptive player and he set the tone the very first play of the ballgame last week. He is a pleasure to coach."
Spence's sack in the second quarter caused a fumble that Lavonte David recovered, leading to a quick touchdown drive. Glennon was also picked off twice, and Head Coach Dirk Koetter knows his defenders up front had something to do with that. Glennon may have only been sacked once, but he was also hit eight other times and constantly harried in the first half.
"Quarterback hits are a good thing," said Koetter. "You've got to believe that those had some impact on those turnovers. Our goal is to get one sack in every 14 attempts and we were nowhere close to that yesterday, but I don't think anybody that watched that game would say that our rush didn't affect the game. Sometimes a sack number by itself can not be that accurate."
The Bucs got seven of their eight active linemen into the game for at least 24 snaps, with only Siliga seeing little playing time. At some point, they will get defensive end Jacquies Smith back into the mix as he returns from last year's knee injury. Recent signee Will Clarke may eventually get a shot, too. The Buccaneers would like to keep all of their linemen fresh, especially the edge rushers, well into the second half. The results of their heavy rotation in Game One were promising. Even more promising: Smith believes the rush will be better when the front and back ends of the defense do a better job of coordinating what they are doing. That was one aspect of the defense's play that did not particularly please the coordinator in the season's first game.
"Pressuring the quarterback is not always just about the guys up front," said Smith. "We've got to do a better job of understanding what we are defending. We've got to get bodies on bodies on receivers and force the quarterback to go to the second and third look. We hit them, we just weren't in concert. We weren't working together on some of the things and we will definitely improve on that."
But it was a very good start, which was evident less in the defensive stat sheet and more on the scoreboard. McCoy thinks that was a continuation of the team's second-half improvement from last season, which he credited to significantly improved on-field communication.
"Just being on the same page with the guy next to you is everything," said McCoy. "Coach preached this offseason about our eyes, where are our eyes at? Keep your eyes on your keys, and we've done that. Stopping the run has been a big emphasis on us, so we focused on that. And then when you stop the run and take the ball away, your chances of winning go pretty high. We just have to keep focusing on those things and hopefully we can keep some success going."