Even when Jacksonville's Byron Leftwich got the ball off in the first half on Saturday night, he often did so under extreme duress
On August 3, a week into the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2006 training camp, Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin was confronted with a question that basically boiled down to: "Quarterback sacks – your thoughts?"
His answer, in a nutshell: "Need more of 'em."
If one considers that a call to arms for a Buccaneer defense that ranked first in the NFL in 2005 and yet had one of its lowest sack totals in years, then what is encouraging this August is how many players have answered that call. Through three preseason games, 10 different Buccaneer defenders have recorded at least half a sack.
Is this the start of something good?
Overall, this preseason has been like most of them – some eye-opening moments, some cringe-worthy episodes and a collection of scores that don't really mean much. As always in August, the real lessons are more specific and deeper into the boxscore, such as Bruce Gradkowski's emergence or a few more penalties than the coaching staff would like to see.
If you're looking for the encouraging bits in there, take your pick: young receivers making big plays, a stifling kickoff coverage unit, apparent depth at linebacker, the aforementioned rookie quarterback out of Toledo.
Those are excellent choices, but we'll take this one: 10 sacks by the defense through three games and, as we said, courtesy of 10 different players.
Five of those sacks came on Saturday night in Jacksonville, during a 29-18 preseason loss to the Jaguars that stood 11-0 in the Bucs' favor at halftime. Four of the sacks were in the first half, which played a big part in Jacksonville's two-of-nine performance on third downs before halftime.
"In the beginning, we were able to put them in third-down situations and get off the field," said defensive end Greg Spires. "There's always room for improvement, but getting on and off the field a lot in three-and-out situations is important for us at this stage of the preseason."
The Bucs sacked Jacksonville quarterback Byron Leftwich on his very first drop-back of the game, forcing a fumble that the defense recovered. They sacked him on his third pass-play attempt, pushing Jacksonville back to its own four and precipitating a punt. They sacked him on the very next Jacksonville third down, once again putting the ball back at the four and forcing a kick.
"Defensively," said Head Coach Jon Gruden. "We played great in the first half. Not good but great."
The Bucs also had three sacks against Miami last weekend and two versus the New York Jets in the opener. Their three-week pace, projected over a 16-game season, would lead to 53 sacks, which would be 17 more than they recorded last year and their highest mark since the 2000 season.
Of course, we can't have it both ways. If we assert that preseason statistics aren't as meaningful as they may seem, then we can't draw too many conclusions from the Bucs' overall sack totals so far. After all, some of the players who have recorded sacks for Tampa Bay so far are considered reserves, at least at the moment, such as Steve Cargile (1.0 sack), Kalvin Pearson (1.0), Keith Wright (0.5) and Antoine Cash (0.5). Some have come against second and third-team offensive lines.
However, Anthony McFarland has gotten to the quarterback already…twice, in fact. So have Ellis Wyms and Simeon Rice and Shelton Quarles. And Saturday night in Jacksonville, with the Bucs' starting defense facing the Jaguars' starting offense for the entire first half, Tampa Bay's pass rush was in high gear against a team that averaged two sacks allowed per game last season.
Leftwich, admittedly not the most mobile signal-caller in the league, dropped back to pass 19 times in the first half and was sacked on four of those occasions. Overall, he was hurried into just eight completions for 71 yards and he didn't get a pass out to a wide receiver until 10 minutes were left in the second quarter.
"We did some great things on defense," said Gruden. "We were flying. We came out ready to play as a football team. I was very enthused. Defensively, we kept the pressure on."
That's the idea, of course. Keep the heat on, keep the quarterback moving in directions he doesn't wish to move and, whenever possible, take the ball away from him. The Bucs' first sack of Saturday night, a sandwich job by Quarles and Dewayne White, forced a fumble that Derrick Brooks recovered at Jacksonville's 43, setting up the Bucs' first touchdown drive. The Bucs also forced a fumble by Jets starter Chad Pennington in the first week of the preseason, killing a drive that had reached the Bucs' five-yard line.
Defensive Line Coach Jethro Franklin was also approached about the sack issue on that day in training camp. He specifically hoped for such moments as the ones against Leftwich and Pennington.
"The best play in football is definitely the sack-caused fumble, no doubt about it," said Franklin. "It's huge."
The Bucs had a third sack-caused fumble against Miami that was recovered by the offense, but even those seven sacks that haven't led to loose balls this preseason have been almost invariably momentum-turners. That's why the Bucs have been so pleased to see such consistent pressure on the quarterback this August.
"[A sack] can mean anything from winning the game to changing the momentum of the game," said Franklin. "It's always a big play."