DT Anthony McFarland, with 2.5 sacks, is helping make the Bucs' pass rush unstoppable
Two weeks ago, this site mentioned somewhat mischievously that the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were on pace to record 96 sacks in the year 2000. While that would more than double the team's single-season record and set a new all-time NFL mark, the number was really fool's gold.
That pace was calculated after one game, in which the Bucs tallied six sacks in the season opener at New England. The pass rush was indeed spectacular that day, and while the math was meaningless the optimism was well placed.
Now it's time to get serious. Three games are a more representative sample and, as calmer heads prevail, we can now report that the Buccaneers are on pace for…
There we go again.
The Bucs' pass rush has shown no signs of slowing down since that opening day. Six sacks against the Patriots, five against the Bears, six last Sunday in Detroit. An NFL-high 18 overall. As tight as the Bucs' secondary is, as productive as LB Derrick Brooks is, Tampa Bay's single biggest strength on defense is the pressure it can bring on opposing quarterbacks.
And the Bucs are doing it every way possible.
"It all comes together and the secondary has to do a good job," said Head Coach Tony Dungy. "We've had blitz sacks where we've just had guys free and the quarterback hasn't seen them. We've had coverage sacks where Charlie (Batch) had to run around and he had no place to go. We've had just really good rushes where we beat people quick. But it is all a team effort. To have 18 sacks means everyone is doing their job."
The difficulty for Buccaneer opponents seems to be in picking their poison. Chicago was shocked when Tampa Bay came with constant well-timed blitzes and CB Ronde Barber had an incredible 2.5 sacks. Last Sunday, the Bucs blitzed only on occasion but the starting front four kept the pressure on anyway. DT Warren Sapp had his second career three-sack day to lead a more conventional rush.
With the effort, Sapp, the defending NFL Defensive Player of the Year, took over the NFL lead in sacks (tied with Philly's Hugh Douglas) that had belonged to Barber for one week. "I made that crack about Ronde being in front of him," said Dungy, "and he wanted to give himself some distance. So he had a good day."
Dungy remains the master of understatement in a manner opposite of our own 96-sack predictions. But even he realizes that the Bucs' interior rush might become simply unmanageable if Anthony McFarland continues his rapid development. McFarland had 2.5 sacks in Detroit to complement Sapp fantastically.
"Anthony's playing well," said Dungy. "He had been playing the run very well for us and doing a good job on the little things, the details. He had been close on some rushes in the past couple of games. To get 2.5 sacks and really get a chance to rush in a game like that on turf plays to his strengths. That shows why we're so high on him."
And so are we, obviously. Not to mention Marcus Jones (two sacks) and the rest of the Bucs defensive front. We're not necessarily thinking 96 sacks (check with us again after about eight games), but there are some milestones that already seem within reach.
The Bucs' record for most sacks in a season is 44, set in 1997 and nearly reached last year when the team got to the quarterback 43 times. To give one an idea of how quickly Tampa Bay's pass rush has gotten out of the gate, realize that the team would need to average just two sacks per contest the rest of the way to tie the 1997 record.
The NFL record is quite a bit tougher but still worth considering, even in September. The famous Chicago Bears of the mid-80s set the mark with 72 in 1984. If you don't believe the Bucs are capable of assailing that mark, you might be surprised to learn that this defense is putting itself in the same category as those Monsters of the Midway.
If Tampa Bay can rank no lower than third in the NFL's defensive ranking this season, they will be the first team to finish in the top three for four consecutive seasons since that '80s Chicago unit. That doesn't mean the Bucs will display the same sack prowess, but to get there, the team will need to average just over four sacks a contest the rest of the way.
Is that possible? Who knows? But the Bucs are certainly keeping pace.