The daily run through the bags for Buccaneer defensive linemen is supposed to increase their speed to the QB
Left unfettered, an average quarterback can pick a defense apart, but in a chaotic battle zone where bodies are flying like heat-seeking projectiles from all angles even the best signal-callers can melt. That's exactly the environment the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are working hard this summer to create in opposing backfields.
Simply put, the Bucs' defense believes it needs more sacks.
Surprised? Don't be. As good as the Bucs' defense was last year – good enough to rank first in the league, in fact – it wasn't as dominant as it could have been. It was not, for instance, statistically on par with the defense of 2002, which also ranked first in the NFL but had seven more sacks and eight more takeaways. Despite that high ranking in 2005, the Bucs' defense registered its second-lowest sack total (36) in the 10 years since Defensive Coordinator Monte Kiffin has been at the helm. That the vaunted Bucs D still found a way to achieve all it did in 2005 is more a testament to Kiffin's scheme and the players' overall execution than to any consistent battering of opposing quarterbacks.
That's something the Bucs defense knows it must improve.
If the long bomb is football's equivalent to the homerun, then the sack is the inning-ending double play. In a matter of seconds, it can change the entire complexion of a game. Just ask Hall of Fame defensive end Deacon Jones. He coined the term "sack" back in the 1960s, explaining it as, "You know, like you sack a city – you devastate it."
And devastating it is. It's a drive-killer with the potential to get inside the quarterback's head. The sack has an impact far beyond the specific number of yards lost on the play, Kiffin explained.
"A quarterback can get sacked a couple of time and then start to feel the pressure," Kiffin said. "He can start to rush throws. It can be demoralizing. It takes a lot. You've got to be able to get off on the ball quick. You've got to have quick hands – a lot of it has to do with your hands. And you've got to have quick feet.
"So many situations come up. Sacks on first or second down that result in a third-and-long situation, or in the two-minute drill, for example, when the offense has to rush to huddle up or burn a timeout after a sack."
Defensive Line Coach Jethro Franklin agrees.
"It can mean anything from winning the game to changing the momentum of the game," Franklin said. "It's always a big play, and the best play in football is definitely the sack-caused fumble, no doubt about it. It's huge."
So it's back to work this training camp for the Bucs' defense, as it tries to recapture the level of play it displayed in a stretch from 1999-2002 when it averaged nearly 46 sacks per year. Not surprisingly, one of those years culminated in a Super Bowl victory, a game in which Raiders quarterback Rich Gannon was sacked five times.
At the heart of any would-be sacks resurgence are the Bucs' defensive linemen. They run the gauntlet day-in and day-out, all in an effort to – borrowing an expression from "The Voice of the NFL," the late John Facenda – "Get the quarterback, get the man."
It's hard work, slamming into sleds with all the brute force they can muster, working on their foot speed and clubbing down any unfortunate blocking bags they happen to encounter – all the while absorbing an earful from Franklin. But it's the basis for getting better.
"It all starts with getting off the ball," Franklin explained. "That's the concept – getting off, first thing. The most important thing is getting off on the football. Then after that, it's getting up the field and getting vertical. If you have great get-off and are able to get up the field really fast, that opens up other things."
And those are the techniques that tackles Anthony McFarland and Chris Hovan, ends Greg Spires and Dewayne White and the rest of the unit, including Julian Jenkins, Ellis Wyms, Anthony Bryant and Andrew Williams can be found working on each day of training camp
And then there's ever-loquacious defensive end Simeon Rice. With 67.5 sacks as a Buccaneer, he could challenge the 78.5 career total of Bucs' all-time sack leader Lee Roy Selmon. For his career, Rice has 119 sacks and has racked up double-digit totals in the category for the last five consecutive years.
"You know what, man, I collect them and I count them after it's all said and done," Rice said. "That's what I do. But right now, I'm in a hunt. When you are in a hunt, you can't, I can't put those feathers in my cap right now. I can't look at the notches in my belt. I'm hungry. My belly's not full. I'm hungry."
With Rice's hunger pains growing and the rest of the defensive line focused on making the big play, the Bucs defense is hoping to feast on opposing quarterbacks all season long. If they do, they may just find themselves dining in Miami this February.