Defensive end Adrian Clayborn has recorded a sack, or at least a shared sack, in each of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers last four games. If he can keep that streak alive through the end of the season, he might just challenge the franchise's all-time record for sacks by a rookie.
That's asking a lot, of course, as even the game's best sack artists rarely make a tally in that category for seven straight outings. But that particular stat often comes in bunches, and even though he has been around the quarterback all season (as evidenced by his team-high 24 QB pressures) the one thing Clayborn hasn't yet had is that multi-sack monster game. Just one big outing like that and Santana Dotson's 1992 record of 10 sacks would suddenly be in serious jeopardy.
Clayborn has 6.5 sacks through the first 13 games of his debut NFL campaign, which is first among league rookies who are playing *defensive end *(LBs Von Miller and Aldon Smith have 11.5 and 10.5 respectively). Clayborn happens to have gotten to that mark in pretty much the exact opposite way Dotson did in '92. That year's fifth-round pick, a defensive tackle, burst out of the gate with six sacks in his first four games, including two each in Weeks One and Two.
Dotson would post "only" four sacks in the last 12 games, and half of them again came in a single game in November. Clayborn, who already has the second-best sack total by a rookie in franchise history, needs a day such as that to put Dotson's record in jeopardy. Fortunately, he doesn't need that record to give him motivation for the final three games of the season; Clayborn is still unsatisfied with his own play to this point and wants to get better before the campaign ends.
"I think the pass-rush game is slowing down a little bit for me but I've still got a long way to go and a lot more things to improve on," he said. "It's hard to say when you lose. It's been going all-right, but I have high standards for myself so I expected to be a lot further along than I am right now."
Clayborn is one of the few Bucs who has a chance to break a long-standing mark in the Bucs' record book or reach some significant team milestone, but he isn't the only one. Here are a few other players who will be chasing interesting marks down the stretch:
- Connor Barth and Michael Koenen have a chance to emerge from 2011 as the most consistently productive kicking duo in team history. If the season ended today, Barth would already be the team's new record-holder when it came to field goal percentage; at 24 of 26 so far, he's working on a mark of 92.3%. The record of 85.2% was set 21 years ago in 1990 by Steve Christie, who was good on 23 of 27 tries. Obviously, Barth would still have the mark even if he misses once more, as that would make him 24 of 27 at the worst. Barth has made his last 14 attempts, and the team record for consecutive successful field goals is 16, shared by Martin Gramatica (in 2000) and Michael Husted (split over the 1995 and 1996 seasons). Koenen, meanwhile, has a gross punting average of 44.3 yards per kick and a net of 39.2. The former still trails Josh Bidwell's 2005 and 2008 marks of 45.6 and 44.5, respectively, but not by much. One of Koenen's final two games will be held at home in presumably mild weather Saturday night; another will take place inside Atlanta's Georgia Dome. Meanwhile, Koenen's net average is the best in franchise history and likely to stay that way. He has to remain ahead of Tommy Barnhardt's mark of 37.8 in 1996.
- RB LeGarrette Blount has 737 rushing yards, which means he needs 263 more over the final three games to reach 1,000. That wouldn't get him anywhere near the team record of 1,544 set by James Wilder in 1984, but it's worth chasing for another reason. Since Blount had 1,007 yards as a rookie in 2010, he would be looking to reach that milestone for a second straight year. The only other player in franchise history who has reached 1,000 yards rushing in each of his first two seasons is Errict Rhett, who did so in 1994 and 1995. Is that a reasonable goal for the last three games? Well, it averages out to just under 88 yards per contest, and Blount has hit 74 yards or better in three of his last four games, including two 100-yard outings.
- As a rookie in 2009, WR Sammie Stroughter set the Buccaneers' single-season record by averaging 29.5 yards per kickoff return. If he gets the chance over the next three weeks, he might just surpass his own mark. Stroughter has averaged 28.8 yards on 16 kickoff returns this season, and most of that has come over the last five weeks since he returned from a foot injury. However, Stroughter missed the last game in Jacksonville with a knee ailment and is questionable to play on Saturday against Dallas. The Bucs seem to view Stroughter as their number-one option on kickoff returns when he's healthy and active for the game, so perhaps he will get a chance to try his hand a few more times this season and boost his average to a new record level.
- Finally, CB Ronde Barber is on the verge of breaking a franchise record set by his teammate of many years and one of the most revered players in team history. LB Derrick Brooks joined the Buccaneers as a first-round draft pick in 1995 and from the opener of that season through the finale of his last campaign in 2008, he played in every single game. That was 224 games in total, which for some time has been easily the team record. However, Barber has now almost reeled him in. Barber began his career in 1997 but saw action in only one game as a rookie. Since the 1998 season began, he has been just as much of an iron man as Brooks was, playing in every game. That's 221 in a row and counting, and that, added to that single game in 1997, would give him 225 by the end of this year. All Barber has to do to appear in the most games by any player in Buccaneers history is to see action in each of the last three contests. Seeing as that hasn't been an issue in over a dozen years, it's almost a sure thing.
Benn Ruled Out
Wide receiver Arrelious Benn, who sustained a concussion in last Sunday's game at Jacksonville, will not play Saturday against Dallas.
The Buccaneers released their final injury report of the week on Friday, complete with game-status designations, and Benn is the only player on the list who has already been ruled out for the Week 15 contest against the Cowboys. However, three other Bucs are still questionable to play: Stroughter, defensive end Michael Bennett and defensive tackle Brian Price.
Bennett is trying to overcome a toe injury and was able to practice fully on Thursday and Friday, though the Friday workout was just a brief walk-through. Price, who has been working through an ankle ailment for several weeks, was limited in practice the last two days, while Stroughter (knee) did not take the field either day.
Cornerback Aqib Talib, who has missed all but five snaps over the last two games due to a hamstring strain, appears poised to return. He practice on Wednesday and Friday and is considered probably for the game. Defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth (knee), who didn't practice on Wednesday or Thursday, is also considered probable.
The Cowboys' injury report includes two players who have already been ruled out: defensive tackle Josh Brent (knee) and wide receiver Andre Holmes (hamstring). Another six are questionable: center Phil Costa (concussion), cornerback Mike Jenkins (shoulder), guard Kyle Kosier (foot), safety Danny McCray (ankle), wide receiver Laurent Robinson (shoulder) and linebacker DeMarcus Ware (neck).
Of those half-dozen players, Costa, Kosier, Jenkins and Ware are starters and Robinson is the team's third-leading receiver behind Jason Witten and Dez Bryant. However, only the sixth player on that list, McCray, did not practice at all this week. The others were all limited on both Thursday and Friday.
Who's Playing Where?
One thing that will be determined during the final three weeks of play will be the last two pieces of the Bucs' 2012 list of opponents.
Fourteen of the team's 16 opponents next year are already known. That includes the usual six intra-division games with Atlanta, Carolina and New Orleans; a game against every team in the NFC East, with Philadelphia and Washington coming to town and away games waiting in Dallas and New York; and a series against the AFC West, with Kansas City and San Diego coming in and trips scheduled to Oakland and Denver.
The final two games will be determined by the divisional standings at the end of the 2011 season. The Buccaneers will be matched up with the teams in the NFC North and the NFC West that finish in the same place in their divisions as do the Buccaneers.
Right now, that would produce a visit from the St. Louis Rams and, for the second year in a row, a trip to Minnesota to play the Vikings. However, that is based on a tiebreaker between the Bucs and the Carolina Panthers, two teams with identical 4-9 records. Carolina defeated the Buccaneers in Week 13. Neither the Bucs nor Panthers can catch the Falcons, who have already won nine games, so Tampa Bay will either finish in third or fourth in the NFC South.
The Vikings and Rams have already locked up the fourth spot in their respective divisions. However, it's a little more complicated if the Bucs finish in third place. If that's the case, they could end up with a home game against either Seattle or Arizona, both 6-7 right now. The Bucs' road game against an NFC North opponent would be to either Detroit (currently 8-5) or Chicago (7-6).
The full NFL schedule, with dates and times, will likely be released in April. However, by the end of the Bucs' Week 16 game in Atlanta, they will know exactly which teams they will be playing next fall, and where.