The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense led the NFL during the just-concluded preseason with 16 sacks. Defensive end Robert Ayers believes that sort of production will continue into the regular season, but his confidence has little to do with that specific sack total.
"If we didn't have 16 sacks in the preseason, if we had zero, I would still believe that we're going to come out here and be able to get after the quarterback," said Ayers, with the self-proclaimed caveat that he is a 'ridiculously confident person' anyway. "What we did in the preseason doesn't necessarily affect my confidence. The way I work, the way I approach the game, the way I study the game, the way I train, and the way these guys next to me work, that's what gives me my confidence."
Pictures of the Buccaneers during the 2016 preseason games.
Those 16 August sacks serve best, perhaps, as a signal to outsiders that the team's efforts to re-energize its pass rush are working. Those efforts included the signing of Ayers in free agency and the drafting of Noah Spence, of course, but they started with the additions of Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith and Defensive Line Coach Jay Hayes. They continued in the spring and the summer with Ayers and his new teammates committing fully to the program and laying the groundwork for a new defense one rep at a time.
"What we did in the preseason, that's preseason," said Ayers on Wednesday, as his team began preparations for the regular-season opener in Atlanta on Sunday. "Real confidence is from the hard work, when you know you're working your behind off and you can go out there on Sunday and just let it go, you can just play fast. You know that you put in the work and win, lose or draw you can look back with no regrets. These guys have been putting in the work, so that's what gives me the confidence."
Half of the team's 16 preseason sacks came in a dominant win over Cleveland in Week Three, notable because both sides kept their starters in for the entire first half and, in some cases, into the third quarter. The Buccaneers' front-line defense sacked Browns starter Robert Griffin III five times before the intermission and allowed only 98 net passing yards. Ayers combined with McCoy on one of those five takedowns, causing a fumble in the process. That was Ayers' lone sack of the preseason but he was singled out as an emotional leader for the D-Line from the very first preseason outing in Philadelphia.
Tampa Bay's defense recorded 38 sacks in 2015, which was nearly exactly league average. Even before their offseason additions, the Buccaneers possessed some talented pass-rushers, with four-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy in the middle and speedy Jacquies Smith on the edge in particular. But the overall pressure on opposing quarterbacks was not particularly consistent, which played a part in the Bucs allowing a league-worst 70% completion percentage to its opponents.
The Bucs want more sustained pressure, and more than a league-average sack total. Of the 10 teams at the top of the NFL quarterback sack ranking last year, nine made the playoffs; Denver, which led the way with 52 sacks, won the Super Bowl. The Buccaneers haven't cracked 40 sacks since 2004. Though he's probably not shooting for a specific number of sacks, Ayers expects his group to succeed in getting to the quarterback this year. The strong results from the pregame tune-up were a good sign, but Ayers is more impressed by what he's seen on the practice field."It definitely gives you a little more confidence," he said. "But like I said before, your true confidence comes from how hard you work. Those guys that are lazy, they may appear to be confident. But when [it] hits the fan and it's the fourth quarter and it's fourth-and-one, and you know you haven't been working hard, that's when it's going to come back to bite you. I feel like I've been putting in the work, I feel like this D-Line's been putting in the work, so I'm excited and I'm confident because of that."