The Bucs' defensive line won't be the only feared pass rush on the field Sunday in Miami
Who can put themselves in the shoes of Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defensive end Marcus Jones? With a career-best 13 sacks this season, Jones has the fourth-best total in the NFC…and he's not even leading his own team in that category. DT Warren Sapp is third in the NFC with 13.5.
Well, for one, Jason Taylor. The Dolphins' speedy defensive end also has 13 sacks, which is second in his conference, and he's even farther from the team's lead. DE Trace Armstrong, who only comes in on passing downs, is leading the NFL, and the Dolphins, obviously, with 15.5 sacks.
If Jones and Taylor can spare a moment between taking turns terrorizing quarterbacks on Sunday in Miami, perhaps they can commiserate about their plights.
Not that they really would, of course. Jones understands the importance of Sapp's inside pressure to his own success, and Taylor certainly must enjoy having a force on the far end of the line to draw attention away from his own efforts. No, the fellows to truly commiserate with on Sunday are the quarterbacks, Shaun King and Jay Fiedler.
Such a confluence of sack-masters hasn't occurred in the NFL in quite some time. In fact, only one other game in the National Football League's history (regular season only) has featured four different players with at least 13 sacks each. The only other occurrence came on December 9, 1984, when Kansas City met Seattle in Arrowhead Stadium, with the Chiefs featuring top sack producers Art Still and Mike Bell and the Seahawks countering with Jeff Bryant and Jacob Green.
"You don't see that happen very often," said Buccaneers Head Coach Tony Dungy, who wasn't furnished with the above trivia answer but did have an intuitive feel for the rareness of it. "Over 50 sacks with four guys – it's a good rush group on both sides of the ball."
Will either pair be able to pad their stats? Well, the Dolphins and Buccaneers have done an acceptable job of protecting their quarterbacks, Miami allowing 21 sacks and Tampa Bay giving up 27, though 13 have come in the last three games. Because decent protection has been paired with killer pass rushes, the Bucs and Dolphins rank second and third, respectively, in sack differential. Tampa Bay has 24 more sacks than it has allowed and the Dolphins own a plus-21.
It would appear that something has to give.
The funny thing is, one of those sack-happy linemen, Sapp, believes it's not going to be the pass protection.
"It's going to be run defense, make no mistake about it," said Sapp of the key element in Sunday's battle. "I don't think they're coming into this game saying, 'We're going to drop back and throw it 50 times,' and I know we're not going to. It's going to be who plays the best run defense. That's exactly what it all boils down to. They have a guy that's on pace to run for 1,000 yards, and we've got the same in Warrick. It's going to be a matter of who's going to tackle. We're all nice and sore right now, and we're going down there at one o'clock, we're going to lock up and it's going to be a knock-down, drag out. It's going to be a four-quarter ballgame."
Dungy agrees, noting that good run defense will create the situations that have led to all of these sacks through the first 13 weeks.
"You aren't going to want to get into third-and-longs or second-and-longs on either side of the ball," said Dungy. "I think, yes, the team that can stay out of those situations the best is going to have an advantage."
Still, all eyes will be on the pass rush whenever one of the quarterbacks is brave enough to drop back. That fearsome foursome is chasing a variety of team records. For instance:
· While Sapp has already broken the previous Buccaneer record for sacks in a season (13 by Lee Roy Selmon in 1977), the final title is still up for grabs. Jones has tied Selmon's mark and could surpass Sapp on Sunday if he outdoes his interior counterpart. Suffice it to say, the Bucs' record is likely to fall several more times before the season is up.
· Armstrong is closing in on 100 sacks for his career. He has 97.5, meaning he would need a 2.5-sack day against the Bucs to get there. That may seem like a lot, but Armstrong already has four games of two or more sacks this season.
· Sapp is 2.5 sacks behind New Orleans' La'Roi Glover (16) for the NFC lead. No Buccaneer has ever led the conference in sacks. Sapp has had three games of two or more sacks this season.
· As a tandem, Armstrong and Taylor are just one-half sack away from becoming the most prolific pass rush tandem in Dolphins history. Those two have combined for 28.5 sacks this season, tying the mark set by Bill Stanfill and Vern Den Herder in 1973 (before sacks were an official NFL statistic).
Moreover, Sunday's game is a chance for one of those two groups to prove it has the best pass rush on the field, which would be saying quite a bit at this particular locale. After all, it's been 16 seasons since so many NFL sack luminaries have all shared the same field. It should be quite a sight.
Unless you're a quarterback, of course.