On a field seemingly littered with fallen Lions, DT Warren Sapp celebrates the Bucs' best sack day of the season
Perhaps that was the game that will get it rolling.
Some things seemed self-evident as the 2001 NFL season prepared for action in September. St. Louis would score a lot of points. Miami would play stifling defense. Marvin Harrison would haul in a string of Peyton Manning touchdown passes.
And the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass rush would produce mountains of sacks.
There was really little reason to doubt it, unless one believed strongly in the curse of overconfidence. Tampa Bay had just set a single-season team record with 55 sacks in 2000, and all of its premier rushers were coming back for 2001. On top of that, the team added sought-after free-agent defensive end Simeon Rice in the offseason, giving it two players who had enjoyed 16-sack seasons.
DT Warren Sapp was just coming off his career-high and team-record 16-sack campaign, as a matter of fact, and a run at 20 seemed reasonable, what with Rice giving opposing offenses yet another threat to worry about.
And so it was with mild astonishment that one scanned the Bucs' stat page after seven games and saw just 13 sacks, 22 fewer than they had at the same point last season. The Bucs had applied reasonably good pressure in at least four of those first seven games, but the sacks just weren't coming. Marcus Jones and Anthony McFarland, who had 13 and seven sacks, respectively, in 2000, were tied for the team lead with two. Sapp had one.
After recording three or more sacks in eight of their 16 games last season, the Bucs had done so just once through the first seven contests, with four against Minnesota on October 28. None of those four sacks against the Vikings were recorded by the starting defensive line so, in effect, the team was still waiting for its big breakthrough pass-rush game.
And maybe that happened last Sunday in the Silverdome.
Tampa Bay dropped Lions QB Charlie Batch five times, led by Sapp's two sacks. Rice also recorded a takedown of Batch, as did backup defensive tackle Chartric Darby. It was the Bucs' highest single-game sack total since November 26 of last season, when they got to Bills QB Rob Johnson six times.
Head Coach Tony Dungy, for one, was happy to see the sack breakout in Detroit. He had been sufficiently pleased with the pass rush much of the season but knew that a few well-timed sacks would have gone a long way towards improving the Bucs' 3-4 start
"We've been rushing pretty well," said Dungy. "This style of offense, where they get a lot of guys out into patterns and are protecting with five guys for the most part, gives you more one-on-ones. They had been sacked a little bit coming into the game, so we felt if we could take away the run, we'd have a chance to get some pressure on the quarterback."
Still, it may have been only a partial breakthrough, as Dungy still saw problems with the timing. LB Jamie Duncan ran a scrambling Batch out of bounds for a three-yard sack on the Lions' second-to-last offensive play of the game, but a heavy rush up the middle on the next snap failed to get a hold of the quarterback. Batch scrambled right and used the extra time to find RB Reuben Droughns open in the end zone for the game-tying touchdown.
"Some of the big ones, right there at the end, the third-and-eight, we didn't get him," said Dungy. "It was off and on, but it was good to see that pressure, especially early."
Darby's sack, on the other hand, did come on a third-and-eight from the Bucs' 12, forcing Detroit to kick a field goal and remain seven points behind late in the fourth quarter. Darby has two sacks in the last three games, which would have normally been icing on the cake after the big sack totals from the likes of Sapp, Jones, Rice and McFarland.
Perhaps those big totals still await the Bucs in the second half of the season. It's probably too late for any team or individual records to be set, but a rejuvenated sack attack would probably lead to a serious playoff chase down the stretch. The Bucs are 21-15 under Dungy when the defense records three or more sacks in a game.
Sapp's outing was the Bucs' first multiple-sack game of the season by an individual, something they did nine times last year. Those two sacks signaled the end of a promising Detroit drive late in the first half of the game. Maybe they also brought about an end to the Bucs' sack drought late in the first half of the season.