DT Anthony McFarland has teamed with NFL Defensive MVP Warren Sapp to give the Bucs an irresistible inside force
There was some surprise, if not exactly shock, when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers selected defensive tackle Anthony McFarland with the 15th pick of the 1999 draft. The Bucs were already strong in McFarland's area – tackles Warren Sapp and Brad Culpepper had combined for 16 sacks in 1998 – and there were perceived weaknesses in some other corners of the team.
What the Bucs had in Sapp was a special player about to hit his prime; he would go on to win NFL Defensive MVP honors that season. What they saw in McFarland was a player cut from the same cloth. The lure for the Buccaneers was strong, a chance for an absolutely dominant interior line, and they took the bait.
McFarland played intermittently as a rookie behind Culpepper, but he's a starter now, and the results of that pairing have gotten the Buccaneers off the hook. It is no stretch to say that Sapp and McFarland are the most dominant pair of defensive tackles in the NFL. Sapp is 27 years old, McFarland just 22. Let the reign of terror begin.
How do we make this bold assertion? The numbers are fairly clear. No other pair of defensive tackles in the league comes anywhere close to the combined total of 12 sacks posted by Sapp and McFarland through six games. The next highest figure is seven, belonging to Philadelphia's Corey Simon (five) and Paul Grasmanis (two).
In fact, only a few pairs of any types of players have more sacks than Sapp and McFarland, though it should be noted that the Bucs' best statistical duo is actually Sapp (7.5) and DE Marcus Jones (six), who combine for 13.5. The NFL leaders are in Miami, where ends Trace Armstrong (10) and Jason Taylor (five) have a total of 15. Philly's Simon and DE Hugh Douglas (8.5) are good for a dual total of 13.5.
The inside work of Sapp and McFarland has helped the Bucs grab the NFL lead in team sacks, with 28. With their offensive counterparts, interior linemen Randall McDaniel, Jeff Christy and Frank Middleton, also pulling their weight, the Buccaneers have by far the best ratio of sacks recorded to sacks allowed. That is evident in the table below.
And there's no reason to expect the Bucs' sack attack to stop exploding from the inside out. Sapp has had at least one sack in 14 of his last 22 games; McFarland has had a sack in three of his six starts. Both are on pace to reach double digits, and Sapp is likely to threaten the team single-season record. Last year, he was held without a sack in the season finale to fall just a half-sack short of Lee Roy Selmon's 1977 team record of 13. This year, he's on pace for 20.
Though 'on pace' can be misleading in some cases, particularly early in the season, it seems clear that Sapp is one of the best interior pass rushers the game has seen. Eleven players have recorded 18.5 sacks or more in a season since it become an official NFL statistic in 1982; none are defensive tackles.
The wonder in the work of Sapp and McFarland this season is that they've taken the sack, traditionally the primary work of defensive ends and pass-rushing linebackers, and made it their own responsibility. As Sapp is fond of saying, the quickest route to the quarterback is right up the middle. (In Sapp's case, that holds true for placekickers as well…he's blocked two field goals in the past two weeks and narrowly missed several others).
That does not mean, however, that Sapp and McFarland have traded in their traditional tackle duties of stopping the run in order to grab the sack spotlight. Sapp has 26 tackles, McFarland 25, just a few less than the middle linebacker, Jamie Duncan (31) and the free safety, Damien Robinson (37).
McFarland plays the nose, making him one of the key figures in the run defense, and he has performed marvelously in that role. Strong and compact at 6-foot-even, 300 pounds, McFarland is adept at taking the center or guard and pushing him back into the path of a run up the middle. When Redskin running back Stephen Davis found enough outside lines on October 1 to gash the Bucs for 141 rushing yards, he found almost no success up the middle, gaining just 34 yards on 17 tries. McFarland was the main reason.
Sapp is also a major obstacle against the run, particularly when he gains quick penetration off the snap and catches the back just behind the line of scrimmage. It's no coincidence that the Buccaneer defense generally dominates in the fourth quarter, even if the last three weeks have evaded that pattern. As players wear down in the late going, the strong push up the middle by Sapp and McFarland becomes exhausting. On Monday in Minnesota, early in the fourth quarter, the Vikings tried a quick draw to RB Robert Smith on second-and-11, but both Sapp and McFarland got to the play quickly and combined for a tackle after a one-yard gain. On the next play, Sapp shot straight up the gut to sack QB Daunte Culpepper for 12 yards.
Tampa Bay, so successful in the draft over the past five or six years, has not always gone in the anticipated direction on draft day, and that was certainly the case in April of 1999 when they tabbed McFarland. The results of that decision, on the other hand, have developed just as the Bucs had hoped. In 2000, there has been no better interior defensive line than the one in Tampa.