In one respect, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' pass rush has been very consistent over the past three playoff-qualifying seasons. The Buccaneers' defense produced 47 sacks in 2020, another 47 in 2021 and 45 in 2022. Those happen to be three of the six highest single-season sack totals in franchise history.
But those numbers are somewhat misleading. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Buccaneers pressure rate has dropped from 29.4% in 2020 to 27.5% in 2021 to 25.1% this season. Tampa Bay actually had its highest sack percentage of those three seasons in 2022, at 7.3%, but overall didn't affect the quarterback as often as in the past two seasons.
Nose tackle Vita Vea lead the Buccaneers in sacks in 2022 with a career-high 6.5, then added the team's lone QB takedown in Monday night's season-ending playoff loss to Dallas. Fourth-year outside linebacker Anthony Nelson also set a new career high with 5.5 sacks, matching the total for off-ball linebacker Devin White. Five other Bucs contributed at least 3.0 sacks. The Buccaneers tied for seventh in the NFL in 2022 with their 45 sacks, but still weren't satisfied with the pressure they were generating from the designated pass rushers.
"No, I don't think it was great," said Head Coach Todd Bowles in his final day-after-game press conference of the 2022 season. "I think we were similar the last three years in numbers – or at least within three or four, number-wise – but they all came from different guys. I think when your nose is your leading sack guy, I don't think the pass rush was good enough. We fell off some, we missed some – but they came from a multiple group of people. You want to be able to get there with four so you can play more coverage. I thought we got better from a pass defense standpoint in that aspect, but we can also rush the passer better."
It didn't help, of course, that outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett, who had 37.5 sacks over the previous three seasons, was felled by an Achilles tendon tear in Week Eight. The Bucs also lost young edge rusher Cam Gill to a season-ending foot injury in the preseason; Gill was expected to be the fourth-man in the OLB rotation with Barrett, Nelson and Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. The Bucs did pick up Carl Nassib just before the season and he was a productive addition to the rotation, but he missed the last month of the regular season and is a pending free agent. Nelson, a 2019 draft pick, could hit free agency in March, as well. The Buccaneers could benefit from players returning from injury and re-signing with the team, but getting a more robust edge rush is definitely a priority for 2023.
"If the situation becomes available, we'll definitely need more sacks from that position," said Bowles. "That's one of our money positions where we count on sacks to come from – the majority of them, anyway. Hopefully Shaq comes back okay. In the third year, Joe can be better at that. Nelson hopefully we can get back. Carl stepped in nicely. But we need more production from a sack standpoint out of that position."
Tryon-Shoyinka, the Bucs' first-round pick in 2021, stepped into a starting role in 2022 after the departure of Jason Pierre-Paul. He had 4.0 sacks in his second NFL season and was second to White on the defense with 14 quarterback pressures, but Bowles thinks the former University of Washington star can do a lot more in the seasons to come.
"I think he can get a lot better," said Bowles. "He fell off quite a few sacks, like you said. If he finished closing…he might have missed more sacks than he made. If he makes those, he's fine. We've got to work on him finishing at the top of the rush, especially falling off the quarterback – I think he leaves his feet too early. We talked about this, he understands that. Going forward, we'll try to get him better and get him to the next level from that standpoint. He's still got all the talent in the world and we're waiting for this guy to break out. When he does – if he does – he's going to be a heck of a player.
"It's more experience. You start your first year and you see a lot of different block combinations and guys [know] how to bait you and everything else like that. He has some learning games where he understands how he has to rush and how people are starting to attack him, and then chip blocks and everything else like that that he understood this year that he needs to see. Next year, hopefully, the experience of that will help him going forward."
Bowles spent three seasons as the Buccaneers' defensive coordinator before taking over as head coach in 2022. He has a well-earned reputation for aggressive play-calling, but he actually dialed back his blitzing tendencies this past season. After blitzing on at least 38.1% of opposing dropbacks in the previous three seasons, Bowles only called blitzes 30.3% of the time in 2022. He said this was largely a function of missing players in the secondary and the specific opponents the Bucs faced during the season.
"Injuries in the secondary and just coverage and matchups – then people up front," said Bowles. "Having to double better receivers this year, with [Ja'Marr] Chase and all those guys. In the past, we could zero out a little bit more. Sometimes you have to change things up. I think we're somewhere close in the sack vicinity. You get behind and closer games so you have to be a little bit more conservative, but there's no one reason why we did it. It's just a cat-and-mouse game."
Bowles surely won't loses his aggressiveness next season and the Buccaneers will likely find a way to accumulate 40-plus sacks using all of their defenders. But a defense that closed out its season by allowing 305 passing yards and four touchdown throws while recording just one sack is going to be looking for more pass-rush help up front in 2023.