DE Marcus Jones could have an increased role next Sunday
With 39 sacks through 13 games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be on the verge of breaking the team record of 44, set in 1997. When and if that occurs, DT Warren Sapp (11.5 sacks) will rightfully receive a large chunk of credit and DE Chidi Ahanotu (6.5) and DT Brad Culpepper (6.0) will share in the accolades.
Those three plus DE Steve White (1.0 sacks) have been every bit of the passrushing force that league observers expected them to be entering 1999. While they have all played at the top of their games, they can also pass a little of the credit on to super subs Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland, who have toiled quietly but effectively. With Jones and McFarland providing starter-quality play, Tampa Bay coaches feel comfortable giving any member of their front four a rest, leading to fresher legs in the second half.
"Marcus and Anthony are a big reason why we've been able to put pressure on the quarterback late in the game," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We are able to rotate six guys in and keep everyone fresh. We That has been a big reason why we've been effective with our pass rush in the fourth quarter."
Sunday's game against Detroit was evidence of that. Tampa Bay recorded three of its four sacks of QB Gus Frerotte in the second half, two on Detroit's final two drives. Not only did Frerotte hit the deck four times, he was constantly on the run in the final period; in fact, his desperate fourth-down incompletion on Detroit's final play was heaved while Sapp was dragging him to the ground.
The one sack recorded by the Buccaneers in the first half went to none other than Jones, who trapped Frerotte for a 13-yard loss to kill a Detroit drive that had reached the Bucs' 43. It was the fifth sack of the season for Jones, who is pushing Ahanotu and Culpepper for second place on the squad despite playing approximately 20 snaps per game. Those numbers continue to prove the value of a key off-season switch – Jones was moved from his defensive tackle position to defensive end during the off-season and has taken to the new position swimmingly.
"Marcus has played well all year," said Dungy. "He had one of his better games against Detroit. He put a lot of pressure on the quarterback. We've been flipping him from the right to the left side to give both Steve and Chidi a rest. We weren't sure when we started this experiment (of moving Jones to end) if he would be able to handle that, but he has."
McFarland, the Bucs' first-round draft choice, has just one sack but has been the team's primary defensive tackle substitute all season. Some thought McFarland was a curious choice for the Bucs in last April's draft, since defensive tackle was a position of strength. However, Tampa Bay felt McFarland's talents were too good to pass up and also envisioned the exact scenario that has developed.
Jones could be an even more important figure on Sunday in Oakland if the Bucs current injury situation stays as it is. Tampa Bay is pleased with the overall health of its roster, but DE Steve White is struggling with a turf toe injury that will probably keep him out of practice on Wednesday and Thursday. Though NFL teams do not announce an official injury report until Wednesday, the Buccaneer training room indicated on Monday that White would likely be considered questionable. White has been playing with the injury for several weeks but significantly aggravated it against Detroit.
That could thrust Jones into the starting role at right end, where he appeared for two games earlier this season when White had a previous injury. Jones graded out well in his earlier starts and, since he has handled every other role with aplomb this year, would be expected to maintain the Bucs' high level of defensive line play. He has already put himself among the group of most improved players in the NFL this season, as his 30 tackles, five sacks and one forced fumble have eclipsed his 1996-98 totals of 32 tackles, one sack and one fumble recovery. Jones could even record the sack that puts the Buccaneers over their 1997 record. Tampa Bay would need to average just two sacks per game over the final three contests to take the mark, and they have averaged exactly three per game so far. Of those 39 sacks, 24 have come in the second half, as many of the Buccaneers victories have ended similarly to Sunday's Detroit game, with the opponent attempting to put together a last-minute game-tying drive.
That the Buccaneers could break the team records for sacks and wins in the same season is not likely a coincidence. Tampa Bay first reached the 40-sack plateau in 1979, getting exactly 40 en route to a 10-6 season and iuts first playoff berth. After upping the record to 42 in 1983, a non-playoff season, the Buccaneers then set the bar at 44 in 1997, when they tied the franchise win record with another 10-6 campaign.
All of which underscores the value of a sustained pass rush. And that, as the Buccaneers can tell you in 1999, underscores the value of depth on the defensive line.