The Tampa Bay Buccaneers should put on their best show of the preseason this Saturday at Raymond James Stadium, as the team's starters will see their longest stretch of action before the regular season, possibly well into the third quarter.
And the best show within that show? Keep an eye on the defensive line.
The competition along the Buccaneers' defensive front is boiling, and that in itself is a measure of victory regarding the franchise's efforts of the last two years. Restoring a dominant D-Line and a ferocious pass rush has been a primary organizational goal under current management, particularly on draft day. Tampa Bay's defensive line depth chart is now littered with high draft picks and diamonds in the rough that have become proven producers. All of those players are benefiting from – and potentially feeling heat of – the radically improved competition within their group.
Third-year defensive end Kyle Moore is a perfect example. A fourth-round pick out of USC in 2009, Moore started seven of the first eight games last season after winning the left end job with a strong offseason. Persistent injuries derailed his sophomore campaign, but he has come back healthy and strong this summer and already has two sacks through two games.
Moore is currently listed third on the depth chart at the position he claimed just last year.
He can still make a move, however. Moore, along with the other 13 players on the Bucs' current D-Line depth chart, know that the team will play the men who can best get to the quarterback and stop the run. And even if a starting spot remains out of reach by opening day, Moore can still carve out a significant spot in the play-time rotation.
"I've really got to go out there and show them that I can rush. That's what they want to see, and they want to see me be healthy. The last couple years I ran into a rut of injuries, but that's not an excuse for anything. This year, I want to play. I was a starter last year, but with the injury from last year I kind of got kicked down. So this year I've just got to keep showing them, keep performing out here on the practice field, show them that I can rush. When the game time comes around, I've got to show them that, too."
The Bucs' current starting front four consists of Adrian Clayborn and Michael Bennett at right and left ends, respectively, and Gerald McCoy and Roy Miller in the middle. There's a good chance that will be the same starting four when the regular season begins in 18 days, though Miller is currently fighting through a knee ailment and rookie Da'Quan Bowers is trying to push Bennett for his spot. But the team's pass-rush won't be built around just four players, and the team could keep seven or eight linemen active on game days. Right now, it's difficult to determine who will be out of the picture.
McCoy played well against New England last week and was considered a 'bright spot' by the coaches. Miller was impressing with his strength in camp before hurting his knee in Kansas City. Jumbo defensive tackle Frank Okam has drawn two starts in place of McCoy and Miller and is making the Bucs' coaches believe they can use a wide-body run-plugger in the middle. Moore has his two sacks. Bennett has a sack and a safety. Rookie end George Johnson has quietly tacked on a sack in each game. And that doesn't even include second-year defensive tackle Brian Price, who hasn't played yet but may make his debut on Saturday against the Dolphins.
Price missed most of his rookie season and has had to battle through the offseason due to a run of leg issues, most notably serious hamstring injuries to each leg that required surgery. The injuries kept him from maintaining his best shape during the offseason, so he has had to work hard to get his football stamina back despite amazing the team with his rapid recovery. Price didn't play in the first two preseason games but Head Coach Raheem Morris thinks the former UCLA star will suit up on Saturday after an encouraging week on the practice field.
"He's excited," said Morris. "He's pumped up to go. He'll be as ready as anybody to play. Now, [there are] all the question marks around him based off all the stuff I know that nobody in this room can handle, including me. You rip my hamstrings off, man, I'm hanging it up. I'm going to the house. I'm certainly proud of where he is. I'm certainly proud that he's getting better and I'd like to see what he's going to do in the game this week if he's able to get out there, which I think he will be able to. It will be nice."
Price's return would emphasize the depth and competition on the defensive line. It doesn't seem likely that he will challenge Miller for the starting job at the season's beginning, but he could provide 20 to 30 very useful snaps. Those are 20 to 30 snaps that could have gone to someone else…and still could.
"You've got some real good luxuries inside and some real good football players," said Morris. "Right now, that would be the initial hope for him, to be able to get in there and give me 25 snaps a game. Productive, fast, quick-twitch, which he's been able to do, cause disruption, which was his number-one thing coming out of college."
If Price is looking to lock down 20 to 30 snaps (or more) in the inside, and thus significantly affecting that already stiff competition, Bowers is trying to do the same on the outside. He has some of the same injury concerns to overcome (his revolving around a knee that required surgery following a dominant senior season at Clemson), and he might be looking at the same sort of key reserve role to start the season.
Also like Price, Bowers has steadily picked up his game since camp began. He hasn't been a focal point in either of the Bucs' first two games but Morris has not missed his day-to-day development, and the coach thinks his rookie pass rusher might be ready to break out. Or perhaps break through would be a better way to put it, since Bowers is developing a power game that intrigues his coach.
"I feel great about where Bowers is going. You see him get better and better every practice. He's coming off surgery as well but you see him getting stronger. He's really starting to develop his power rush and he's really starting to understand that's probably going to be one of his big-time tools in this league. He's a [Michael] Strahan-looking, Kevin Carter-looking type of guy, and those guys won on strength and power. I'm sure in college he had some quickness over some of those guys and was able to use that quickness and he'll have some advantages here at this level too, but for the most part what I'm starting to see on tape is that he's really starting to come back to his power, his get off. You can see him getting stronger and stronger every single day."
Former Buccaneer great Warren Sapp, one of the best pass rushers of his generation, recently visited Tampa Bay headquarters and spoke optimistically (and at entertaining length) about many aspects of his former team, including the defensive line. Sapp's message to the team's young defenders was to always consider rushing the passer to be a group effort. The Bucs' management understands that concept, and thus, this competition we speak of is both a friendly one and a very healthy one for the Buccaneers as a team. One way or another, the Bucs are going to field a more talented defensive front this year.
But every man on the depth chart wants to play as much as possible, and ultimately to start. That privilege is on the line on Saturday and the rest of the preseason, and that's going to make the defensive line play particularly entertaining to watch this weekend. Kyle Moore understands that he has to fight his way back up the depth chart at left end, and it's likely the two players in front of him know the same thing.
"I really think [Bowers] is going to start to come on here more and more," said Morris. "Although, Michael Bennett makes him better. He has to. Michael Bennett's giving maximum effort and playing really well, and that's got to raise the bar for Da'Quan. It's not going to be easy to get on the field if Michael continues to play that well."