- DT Gerald McCoy may find a way to beat double teams consistently, but in the meantime the Bucs need an edge rusher to step up
- Every player on the roster was able to practice on Thursday as several key players near a return to action
- The Bucs have faced many of the league's best pass-catchers, but DeSean Jackson poses a unique threat
The Atlanta Falcons came into last Sunday's game with an offensive line that had been hit hard with injuries during the 2014 season and was theoretically susceptible to allowing a significant amount of pressure on quarterback Matt Ryan. However, the Falcons held Tampa Bay's defense to just one sack and three hits on Ryan, and in what was almost certainly a related development, zero takeaways.
Atlanta's strategy to slowing down the Bucs' pass rush seemed to begin with paying extra attention to All-Pro defensive tackle Gerald McCoy at all times. Fellow defensive tackle Clinton McDonald used that opportunity to notch his second sack of the season, but the Buccaneers didn't get much production from the edges of their pass rush. That needs to change, says Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier, or opponents will continue to succeed by double and triple-teaming McCoy.
"Gerald is getting a lot of protections sliding to him and centers coming to him and that creates opportunities for other guys and we need to take advantage of it," said Frazier. "Our guys know that and we've got to find that person that can do that. Hopefully this week we'll get Michael [Johnson] back and he'll get those opportunities, but if not that means other guys would have to step up. If they get the one-on-ones they have to win for us, [because it] puts a lot of stress on our secondary when we don't."
In a way, McCoy has already won one battle when he forces an opponent to send extra players in his direction. He's not satisfied, however, with accepting that indirect victory; he still wants to put pressure on the opposing passer even when it means beating a double-team.
"It has to be done in order for me to be effective and it's something I have to work on extremely hard, especially if it comes in practice because that's the best time to work on it," he said. "There are a lot of times where teams max-protect and somebody has to win. I just have to get better and perfect working against double teams. There are ways to slip double teams, there are ways to align yourself in a better way, even when you know it's coming. There are a lot of different things I can do, but I just have to keep working at because if I get it done, then it will help us a lot.
"[Double teams] used to frustrate me, but then I just kind of realized that comes with it. [Warren Sapp] told me, 'It's tough sledding down there when you're the guy, this is what you're going to get, get used to it and get over it.' That's just kind of how [Sapp] works."
Bucs DT Gerald McCoy has been an imposing pass-rusher this season but he'll continue to draw more double-teams until more Tampa Bay linemen make opponents pay for it
Obviously, the Bucs will be pleased if McCoy can continue to get to the quarterback through extra obstacles, but they would be better off giving opponents a reason not to adopt that strategy.
"In our league, if you're not able to consistently rush the passer, then you have to bring five or six and that can really expose your secondary," said Frazier. "We have to find a way to get that one other person to give us consistent pressure if they're going to try and take Gerald from us, somebody else has to step up."
- Smith said the Buccaneers' injury report is "cleaning up," and that's good news for a team that has taken hits at some of the game's most important positions in recent weeks.
The injury report remains eight players long but, for the first time since October 22 – the Wednesday after Tampa Bay's bye week – there wasn't a single player held completely out of practice. That's because running back Doug Martin and defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, both held out on Wednesday due to ankle and groin injuries, respectively, returned in a limited fashion on Thursday. McCoy wasn't interested in acknowledging he was hurt or suggesting how close he was to 100% healthy when he met with the press before practice.
"I'm fine," he said. "I don't have to put a number on it, I'm fine."
Even more encouraging, four other Buccaneers, including three starters, went from limited on Wednesday to full participation on Thursday. That list included both of the team's starting offensive tackles, Anthony Collins (foot) and Demar Dotson (neck), as well as starting right defensive end Michael Johnson (hand) and tight end Luke Stocker (hip). Click here for the Bucs' full official injury report on Thursday.
The Redskins, coming off their bye week, also have an encouraging injury report. Five of the six players on the list, including quarterback Robert Griffin III (ankle) and sack leader Ryan Kerrigan (wrist) were full participants in practice on both Wednesday and Thursday. Washington's full injury report can be found here.
- Tampa Bay's defense has already faced Pittsburgh's Antonio Brown, the NFL's leader in receiving yardage; Carolina's Kelvin Benjamin, the NFL's rookie leader in receiving yardage; New Orleans' Jimmy Graham, the NFL's leader in catches among tight ends; Baltimore's Steve Smith, the NFL's leader in retribution-based touchdowns; and Atlanta's Julio Jones, who's just really, really good. Later on, the schedule promises meetings with Brandon Marshall, Alshon Jeffery, A.J. Green, Calvin Johnson, Jordy Nelson and Randall Cobb.
That's a murderer's row of opposing pass-catchers, but it is conspicuously missing perhaps the most unique challenge on the Buccaneers' schedule this season. That challenge arrives this week in the person of Washington Redskins wide receiver DeSean Jackson.
Jackson leads the NFL in yards per catch at 21.8. Since he landed in the league in 2008 – first with Philadelphia for six years and now in Washington – he has racked up a league-leading 27 catches of 50 or more yards. As a comparison, the Buccaneers as a team have had 22 passing plays of 50 or more yards in the same span. And like Smith in his absolute prime, Jackson is a true two-way threat for cornerbacks trying to make sure he doesn't go to the house, in that he has the speed to blow past the back of the defense but also an ability to catch a short pass and make it into a huge gain.
"I've been on the other sideline quite a bit [against Jackson]," said Smith. "Some guys can make you turn over fairly quick and stay deep, and then there's the DeSean Jacksons of the world that really make you do that. [He] can catch the ball, you have to turn over, but he'll stop it and catch it also. So we'll try to mix up our coverages as much as we can and keep the ball in front of us."
Ideally, the Buccaneers would have two levels of defense against Jackson to guard against both issues, but doing so repeatedly would compromise the run defense and that's not a sound strategy against the Redskins' offense, either.
"Washington believes in the run, so when you have a run threat that they believe in, that they're committed to, you can't play two-deep coverage an awful lot versus it," added Smith. "So you have to put our guys in one-on-one situations. Just one-on-one, that's a tough matchup for anybody in the league, I think, when they have to guard him with what he can do."
The Redskins were able to add Jackson to an offense that already included Griffin, Pierre Garçon and Alfred Morris because Chip Kelly and the Eagles chose to release him this past spring. In the first month of his first regular-season with Griffin and company (and, by the middle of Week Two, Kirk Cousins in Griffin's place), Jackson wasn't consistently involved in the Redskins' attack. He had fewer than 20 yards in two of the team's first four games, and only one game where he broke 100 yards. Over the last five games, however, Jackson has topped 115 yards four times and averaged 115.4 yards per game and 27.4 yards per catch.
However, the Redskins aren't really targeting Jackson any more now than in September; they're just doing it more effectively. He was targeted 6.5 times per game in the first four outings, then 7.0 times per game in the last five. The Redskins are figuring out how best to draw the big plays out of their dangerous new weapon.
"No question, they take their shots," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Leslie Frazier. "I think DeSean [Jackson] is leading the league in plus-40-yard catches and by pretty large margins. There are going to be opportunities and we've got to take advantage of those when they come. We just have to be where we need to be and catch the football. They're not going to stop taking shots with a guy like that and we just have to be in position and make the play."