The Bucs drafted DT Roy Miller in the third round in 2009 and could find a deep pool of linemen available in 2010
Last year at this time, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers had a new head coach (Raheem Morris), a new defensive coordinator (Jim Bates) and a new defensive line coach (Robert Nunn) joining the one they already had (Todd Wash). The one thing everybody on the revamped staff agreed upon, however, was anything but a new refrain.
The Buccaneers needed a more effective pass rush in 2009.
With a commitment to a more aggressive approach on defense, an emphasis on building a tougher and more physical roster overall and the hoped-for improvement from some of the team's young linemen, there was plenty of hope that opposing quarterbacks would face more pressure from Tampa Bay's D in '09.
"They've got to [get more pressure]," said Morris of his defensive line on the eve of the '09 season. "When we talk about more pass rush, more pass rush, we're comparing them to Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice, Greg Spires and Booger McFarland. Those guys gave you more. Anything you asked [Sapp] to do, he was going to get. Anything you asked Simeon to do as far as the pass rush, he was going to get. It was going to be dynamic and be special. And these guys are being compared to those guys in their second and third years. It's been unfair for them, but they've got to come into their own. That's part of the process we're talking about."
It didn't exactly turn out that way.
The Buccaneers' defense finished the 2009 campaign with a total of 28 sacks, one fewer than it had the year before, which was in turn five fewer than it had in 2007. Once one of the most effective pass-rushing teams in the NFL - as evidenced by an NFL-record of 69 consecutive games with at least one sack from 1999-2003 - Tampa Bay has struggled to recapture that magic of the Sapp-Rice years. Of the top 10 sack seasons in franchise history, none have come over the past five years, when the Bucs have averaged 30 QB takedowns per season.
It's not hard to understand why the Bucs' coaching staff would put an emphasis on sacking the quarterback. Over the past 10 years, the Buccaneers' have played 160 regular-season games. In 95 of those games, they have recorded two or fewer sacks of the opposition; they won just 34 of those games, for a winning percentage of 35.8%. In the other 65 games, Tampa Bay's defense came up with three or more sacks, and they won 45 of those outings, for a winning percentage of 69.2%.
Of course, the reason coaches often dismiss statistics is that they can be massaged to mean almost anything, especially if one confuses cause and effect. It's fair to look at the above numbers and wonder whether the correlation between higher sack totals and victory only flows in one direction. If a team is winning a game by a good margin, for instance, that often forces the opponent to pass more often and more obviously, which increases the opportunity for sacks.
Still, even taking them with a grain of salt, the numbers suggest fairly strongly that the Buccaneers has been more effective, historically, when they featured a better-than-average pass rush.
Tampa Bay has played 34 seasons since entering the league in 1976, and in 12 of those seasons they have finished with a win-loss record of .500 or better. In those 12 seasons combined, the Bucs' defense has recorded a sack on 7.16% of their opponents' pass plays; in the other 22 seasons, the average is significantly lower at 6.23%.
Tampa Bay's defense has finished 12 of its 34 seasons with a sack rate of 7.50% or better. Among those 12 seasons are four of the top six seasons in terms of winning percentage in team history. The Bucs have a combined winning percentage of .434 in those 12 seasons, and a mark of .373 in the other 22.
Of course, strong defense doesn't always translate to a winning record; Tampa Bay ranked fourth in the NFL in defense in 1978 but finished with a 5-11 record. However, sacking the quarterback does usually lead to good defense. In the 10 best seasons in franchise history in terms of points allowed per game, the Bucs have record a sack on 7.21% of pass plays. In the other 24 seasons, that average is 6.29%.
So, will the Buccaneers, certain to be in search of an improved pass rush again in 2010, address that issue in the upcoming draft? As usual, the team's actual draft strategy is privy only to a select few in the organization, and any discussion of the draft on this site is not intended to reflect the thoughts of the team's true decision-makers. Thus, that question won't really be answered until late April.
What is clear, though, is that this year's draft is strong in defensive linemen. Many analysts consider defensive tackle to be the deepest and most talented position in the draft this year, with defensive end not too far behind. Soon, most of those top D-line prospects will head to Indianapolis for the NFL Scouting Combine, and scouts and coaches from around the league will get another opportunity to arrange those positions on their draft boards.
The NFL has not released its list of invited players to the Combine. However, the roughly 300 players who travel to Indianapolis each year usually make up the vast majority of the group that will be drafted two months later. Some colleges have already announced which of their players will be attending the Combine, and it's fair to expect most of the top names to be on hand, although not all of them will necessarily do a full workout.
A list of the most highly-regarded draft-eligible defensive tackles, then, is likely to coincide pretty strongly with the players one might see in Indianapolis in two weeks. That list could include Nebraska's Ndamukong Suh, Tennessee's Dan Williams, UCLA's Brian Price, Oklahoma's Gerald McCoy, Syracuse's Art Jones, Alabama's Terrence Cody, Penn State's Jared Odrick and Louisiana Tech's D'Anthony Smith.
Many project Suh to be first off the board when the draft begins, and Cody, McCoy, Odrick, Price and Williams are already getting a lot of mock-draft love, as well. Suh is both quick and powerful and draftniks expect him to be the type that can collapse the pocket and give an NFL team that sometimes elusive inside pass rush. He had 12 sacks this past season, tied for fourth in the nation. Cody was a linchpin on defense for the national champion Crimson Tide, and he's nimble despite his mountainous size. McCoy has been considered one of the nation's top defensive tackles for several seasons and he has the strength and quickness to beat double teams.
Among the top-rated ends who could be expected to make an appearance at the Combine are Georgia Tech's Derrick Morgan, Florida's Carlos Dunlap, USC's Everson Griffin and Michigan's Brandon Graham. A local product is also one of the ends who could hear his name called very early on draft day, as USF's Jason Pierre-Paul has seen his name rise on most mock drafts since the end of the season.
Pierre-Paul had six sacks, 42 tackles and an interception he returned for a touchdown for the Bulls in 2009. Long and fast off the line, he is a pure pass-rusher who is still developing his run-stopping skills. Morgan had a dozen sacks like Suh in 2009 and has excellent size for the end position. Dunlap's off-field problems haven't obscured his size (6-5, 300) or athleticism and Graham was a big-time producer for the Wolverines with 28 sacks over the last three years.
Last year, the Buccaneers used their first-round pick on their quarterback of the future (and the present) in Josh Freeman. Their next two selections, however, were devoted to defensive linemen Roy Miller and Kyle Moore. Miller had two sacks in his break-in role as the third tackle behind starters Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims. Moore was slowed in the early going by injuries but was coming on down the stretch in his rookie campaign.
The Buccaneers are high on both of their second-year linemen, but there's always room for more talent along the defensive line. Once again, the team starts an offseason determined to get more pressure on the quarterback in the fall; this month's Combine could illuminate just what talent is available in pursuing that goal.