The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Gerald McCoy with the third-overall pick in the 2010 draft and he has spent the better part of a decade giving the team an elite level of pressure from the interior line. McCoy's 45.5 sacks since 2013 are the second-most among all NFL defensive tackles in that span.
The Buccaneers' efforts to pair that push up the middle with an equally impactful pressure off the edge have generally not been as successful, whether it was bringing in Michael Johnson in free agency in 2014 or drafting Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers in the first two rounds in 2011. Until now.
Tampa Bay's defense has certainly had its struggles this season and it currently ranks 27th in yards allowed and 31st in points allowed. But it seems to be turning the corner a bit in the second half. The Buccaneers have allowed roughly 85 fewer yards and nearly 14 fewer points per game over the past three weeks than it had during its first eight outings. The impetus for this improvement has been a more disruptive defensive line, which has included 4.5 sacks by the stalwart McCoy in the last four games but perhaps more importantly – and certainly more novel – has featured significant pressure off both edges.
Providing much of that edge pressure has been the duo of Jason Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib, who have combined for 16 sacks this season. Pierre-Paul deservedly drew the big headlines this past Sunday when he broke the franchise's 13-year run of not having an individual 10-sack season, but Nassib had a sack and two quarterback hits in that game, too, and is arguably the bigger surprise.
“I think everything starts with JPP and Nassib, the two ends," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "I think [it's] those two, from a disruption standpoint. Gerald is still a handful when he gets singled inside. Teams haven’t been able to focus quite as much on Gerald, but I think the penetration of Carl and just the overall doggedness of JPP – that he just won’t quit – I think that’s pushed the entire group to bigger heights."
Pierre-Paul, whom the Bucs acquired in an offseason trade with the New York Giants, leads the way with 10.5 sacks, his third career double-digit season. McCoy is next at 6.0 and could conceivably get his first-double-digit campaign, though he's been as close as 9.5 in the past. Nassib has already set a new personal single-season best with 5.5 sacks. As it has turned out, the Buccaneers have depth in their QB-sack producers that only a few teams can match this year.
Tampa Bay is one of just six teams that can boast three different players who already have five or more sacks. The others are Baltimore, Buffalo, Kansas City, Pittsburgh and Washington. Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are the only two teams that have one player already in double digits in sacks and two others with five or more. And Tampa Bay, Kansas City and Washington are the only teams that have two defensive ends (or pass-rushing outside linebackers) whose combined sack production is 15 or more.
The Buccaneers suddenly have edge pressure that opposing offenses have to scheme around, something that has rarely been true in Tampa since the end of Simeon Rice's days in red and pewter.
"They’re both guys to be concerned about if you’re on the offensive side," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "Number one, they’re high-energy guys, high-effort guys. They’re going to work like hell to get the job done. Number two, they’ve got talent and when you add those two things – attitude and talent – together you get some production. I can’t be more excited about what they have brought in terms of their personality, their character, their work ethic and their production to the defense."
The price of a third-round pick for Pierre-Paul has obviously been well worth it, and that's with five games still to play. Pierre-Paul was supposed to be part of a deep rotation of pass-rushers, an idea that has only occasionally taken shape due to injuries along the line, but he was also fully expected to be a starter and one of the team's leading pass-rushers.
Nassib, on the other hand, wasn't supposed to be the bookend starter to Pierre-Paul. He wasn't even one of the many additions to the line the Buccaneers made during an offseason overhaul. Nassib only landed in Tampa after he was somewhat surprisingly waived by the Cleveland Browns in the final roster cuts and quickly snapped up off waivers by the Buccaneers.
But he stepped right into a prominent role in the D-Line rotation, as Buccaneer coaches quickly came to appreciate his relentless approach. Nassib played 27 snaps in the opener and then 34 in Game Two, and when Vinny Curry was sidelined by an ankle injury he stepped into the starting lineup. His first start as a Buccaneer came against his former team in Cleveland, and he punished the Browns with two sacks.
The combined sack totals of Pierre-Paul and Nassib are the most the Bucs have gotten out of a pair of defensive ends since 2005, when Rice had 14 on his own and Greg Spires added four. The last time the Bucs had a 10-sack end and a five-sack end was the year before that, when Rice had 12 and Spires had eight. As was the case in those seasons, the disruption caused by a pair of highly active ends goes beyond the simple sack totals. Pierre-Paul and Nassib have also combined for 28 quarterback hits (with another 15 coming from McCoy) and, as was the case in the win over San Francisco, some of those non-sack hits were just as effective in ending drives and helping the Bucs pull away.
"The point is that those guys were getting there and they were hitting the quarterback," said Koetter. "Then as the game went one, definitely the playing with the lead kicked in – more so in the second half. I thought they really set the tempo in the first half and I thought Duff did a really good job of mixing it up."
Tampa Bay's defense has a way to go before it can be satisfied with its results, and it has a very tough opponent coming to town Sunday in the Carolina Panthers. But the search for pressure off the edge, so long a problem for that defense, has been a fruitful one in 2018, and with those rushers leading the way there is a clear opportunity for improvement across the board.