Twenty-one-year-old defensive end Da'Quan Bowers made his first NFL start on Sunday at LP Field, and he made his presence felt on the very first play of the Tennessee Titans' opening possession.
On the play, Titans quarterback Matt Hasselbeck faked a handoff to running back Chris Johnson going left, then spun to his right and ran out on a designed play-action. Bowers, playing left end and thus the player at most risk of being pulled out of position by the fake, wasn't fooled and he immediately gave chase on the quarterback. With Bowers in his face and the tight end covered on his shallow route, Hasselbeck had no choice but to throw the ball away before he was dropped.
As promising as that opening play was to Bowers' first start, it was soon forgotten on a day that featured nine turnovers, two non-offensive touchdowns, four sacks, a fourth-down touchdown pass and plenty of late-game intrigue over a key spot that was never measured. Even Bowers, who overcame quite a bit to be in a position some football experts never expected, probably won't look back too fondly on his starting debut.
"It definitely is tough on us," said the 2011 second-round draft pick. "We just need to correct some things and get into the win column as soon as possible."
But make no mistake – while one particular play may not stick in the franchise memory banks, this was potentially the start of something very important for the Buccaneers.
Bowers' start at left end came down the line from fellow rookie Adrian Clayborn, the 2011 first-round pick who has opened every game this year at right end. With those two lining up for the opening snap together for the first time, it marked the first time in 18 years that the franchise had started rookies at both defensive end spots in the same game. On October 10, 1993, Chidi Ahanotu and Eric Curry started at left and right end, respectively, in a 15-0 Buccaneer loss to the Minnesota Vikings. Bowers may not yet have a permanent hold on the left end job – he was starting in place of the injured Michael Bennett, who has played well – but the Bucs have high hopes for his future.
Tampa Bay grabbed Clayborn with the 20th overall pick in this year's draft, amid a league-wide run on pass-rushers. It was considered an extremely deep class of ends (and pass-rushing linebackers), but the Bucs particularly liked the hustling style of play Clayborn exhibited at Iowa, choosing him over several other interesting candidates.
One of those interesting candidates was Bowers, once thought a potential first-overall pick before knee surgery brought on a flurry of red flags from draft analysts. Concerns about Bowers' long-term NFL future, and whether he would be ready for the start of the 2011 season, caused him to fall to the second round, where the Bucs simply couldn't pass him up at pick number 51. The franchise had gone into the 2011 draft determined to inject new life a pass rush that had been floundering for seasons, so the chance to get two potential stars for the edges of the line was unexpected but quite welcome.
The Bucs believed that Bowers would be able to make an impact in his rookie season, if brought along with the proper amount of caution, and they have been proved right. Bowers has played in every game this season and has recently seen his playing time increase in small increments from week to week. More importantly, Tampa Bay's management also disagreed with the notion that Bowers would only last a few seasons in the NFL, and thus they obviously envisioned a long-term solution of Clayborn and Bowers on the ends. That coupled with the one-two picks of defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price the year before has the potential to form a dominant front line in Tampa for a long time.
If so, the franchise took another step in that direction Sunday in Nashville. Not only did Bowers start and play a season-high 76% of the snaps, but Clayborn recorded the fifth sack of his rookie campaign. That puts him tied for fifth in the NFL among rookies in sacks this season, and first among defensive ends. It also marks just the seventh time in team history that a rookie has recorded that many QB takedowns. If he can collect two more over the final five weeks he would finish with the second-best rookie sack effort in franchise annals.
Top Rookie Single-Season Sack Totals in Buccaneer History
Lee Roy Selmon
Obviously, the Bucs have been pleased with Clayborn's efforts for some time; he also leads the team with 20 quarterback pressures. Head Coach Raheem Morris said Bowers' first start was promising, as well.
"Bowers played well for his first time out there, first time out of the box," said Morris. "[He had] growing pains, of course – he obviously had some bad plays – but he had some really good plays. I believe he had two tackles and a quarterback hit. He played decent. We can get him to play better, but we keep seeing him grow throughout the season."
The Buccaneers' defense did a good job against Hasselbeck and the Titans' passing game, recording two sacks, pressuring the quarterback seven other times and picking off or deflecting nine of his passes. Bowers made a mark in each of those latter categories, adding two tackles to his QB pressure and pass defensed. Clayborn had five tackles, the aforementioned sack and three quarterback pressures. Hasselbeck finished with a passer rating of 53.5.
However, despite a handful of impressive tackles in the backfield, the Bucs could not contain running back Chris Johnson over the long haul. Johnson finished with a season-high 190 rushing yards, 144 of those coming after halftime. Again, that made it hard for Bowers, Clayborn or the Tampa Bay coaches to enjoy the first combined start of the two rookie ends, even if they get good marks for playing hard and fast.
"I think we came out with a lot intensity," said Bowers. "Chris Johnson being the back that he was made a lot of plays in the second half that we couldn't stop. I think we put up a hard-fought battle, but we are going to back to work on Monday and correct our mishaps."
Added Morris: "We have got to go out and absolutely dominate games in order to win and that's what we have go to do. There is no such thing as playing well enough. This is a team concept, this is a team game and we have to execute in all three phases of football in order to win football games. We've got to play better up front and that's where it starts."
Got to play better up front – that has been the whole premise of the Buccaneers' last two drafts. With rookies Bowers and Clayborn improving on a steady basis, that's something the franchise is counting on in the very near future.