Prior to last year's arrival of Jason Pierre-Paul, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had waited 13 years for a player, any player, to reach double digits in sacks. They didn't even have to wait a full calendar year for the next one after that.
Pierre-Paul's 12.5 sack season made him the first Buccaneer to get to 10 sacks in a season since the great Simeon Rice had 14.0 in 2005. Had the Bucs not swung an offseason trade to get Pierre-Paul from the Giants in 2018, the drought probably would have continued into 2019, in which case it would be another newcomer, Shaquil Barrett, linking his name to a franchise legend like Rice. Barrett, you see, has done it, too, with 12.5 sacks through his first 11 games as a Buccaneer.
That's okay, though; Barrett has bigger fish to fry.
There are two very reasonable milestones that Barrett can pursue over the final five games of the season. First, he is currently tied with Arizona's Chandler Jones for the NFL lead in sacks and he could become the first Buccaneer ever to lead the NFL in that category. Sacks first became an official statistic in 1982 and since then the closest a Buccaneer has come to topping the annual list is when Warren Sapp had 16.5 QB takedowns in 2000 and the New Orleans Saints' La'Roi Glover had a league-leading 17.0.
"I just need to keep producing so I can stay at the top," said Barrett, who was briefly passed by Jones at the top of this year's list before collecting another sack last Sunday in Atlanta.
Second, Barrett could threaten that same 2000 total of 16.5 sacks by Sapp that still stands as Tampa Bay's single-season record nearly two decades later. After all, Barrett is averaging more than a sack per game and he only needs four more in five contests to catch Sapp.
It's worth noting that the peak sack season in Sapp's Hall-of-Fame career came in the same year that defensive end Marcus Jones had his own 13-sack breakout. When Simeon Rice approached Sapp's record two years later and topped out at 15.5 sacks, he had Sapp himself drawing attention from blockers away. Every pass-rusher benefits from having other threats on the defensive front that require the offense's focused attention.
That's certainly the situation that Barrett finds himself in, particularly since Pierre-Paul returned from the reserve/NFI list and Carl Nassib got back on the field after missing most of three games with a groin injury. Last Sunday's game in Atlanta was the first time in a month the Bucs got a full game from all three of those players, and the results were clear. The Bucs sacked Matt Ryan six times, including one each from Barrett, Nassib and Pierre-Paul.
"It's amazing," said Barrett of playing with a full complement of pass-rushers, including inside players like Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh. "Everybody's versatile on the defense up front. Everybody can go inside, everybody can go outside, so it makes it fun. It makes Coach Bowles' job a little easier because he can play around with us a little bit, but it's a lot of fun."
Barrett has had at least a half-sack in eight of the 11 games he's played in this season. The only time he went consecutive games without a sack came in Weeks Five and Six, right after he had been named the NFC's Defensive Player of the Month for September. In Week Five, the Saints were the first opponent to make a concerted, full-game effort to treat Barrett as the Bucs' top defensive threat, throwing chips and extra blockers at him throughout.
Pierre-Paul returned for the Bucs' next game after those two shutouts and Barrett immediately got hot again, with 2.5 sacks over the next three weeks.
"It helps a lot," said Barrett of Pierre-Paul's presence. "After the Saints game I haven't had that much attention on me and I know it's because of Carl, it's because of Vita, it's because of Suh, it's because of JPP – all of the guys in there doing what they've got to do. We're all eating off of it."
In addition to Arizona's Jones, Barrett is also in league-wide competition with Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt (11.5 sacks), Green Bay's duo of Preston Smith (10.5) and Za'Darius Smith (10.0) and a few others. Of course, there's much of that that Barrett can't control. In terms of the Buccaneers' record, the goals are fixed in place and Barrett will start knocking them down with each new sack he gets.
To be specific, Barrett is currently tied with Pierre-Paul for the seventh-highest single-season sack total in franchise history, and:
· With his next sack he will pass Jones (13.0 in 2000) and Lee Roy Selmon (13.0 in 1977) for fifth place;
· With another sack after that he would pass Rice (14.0 in 2005) for fourth place;
· With another sack after that he would pass Rice again (15.0 in 2003) and tie Rice (15.5 in 2002) for second place;
· With another sack after that he would tie Sapp for the record (16.5 in 2000);
· And with just one more after that he would be all alone in first place.
Of course, when and if Barrett starts piling up sacks again, he's likely to start seeing some more chips from helping tight ends and backs, even with the other Buccaneer pass-rushers to worry about. If that's the case, it won't change his approach to rushing the passer.
"Just forget about it," said Barrett of getting extra attention from blockers. "[Outside Linebackers] Coach [Larry] Foote says, 'Don't worry about the chip. It's coming, it's going to be there. You've just got to find a way to beat it and don't let it slow you down.' Because the time that you're expecting to get chipped you don't get chipped and that could be the time you get the sack. So you've got to go every play like you're going to make that play."