It’s a fair question, right? Mike Smith doesn’t seem to know the answer. The players don’t seem to know the answer. So what’s going on with them? They have talent there. Maybe not the dominant edge rusher that some teams have like Von Miller in Denver or Khalil Mack in Oakland, but they have guys that can get the job done. Especially when they’re typically facing one-on-one matchups. So what is it? Why can’t this front four get the job done?
Just like the offense that has sputtered to mediocrity, the defense was supposed to be dominant this season. I remember reading plenty of articles this summer like “The Bucs D-line Will Be Scary This Season” and “Bucs Could Have The Best D-line In The NFL This Year”. Hell, I even wrote an article about how mean and nasty this defense was going to be and how they would pick up right where they left off last year. I thought that this defense would be setting franchise records for sacks and interceptions this season. It’s not happening. Not even close.
This defense has not only underachieved, they’ve sucked ass. They currently rank 26th in total yards allowed (2,705), 24th in points allowed (24 per game), 30th in passing yards allowed (274.4 per game), 17th in rushing yards allowed (111.7 per game), 32nd in third down percentage (49%), 29th in completion percentage allowed (67.7%) and 27th in passing yards per attempt (7.7). They’re also tied for 16th in takeaways with 10 total including 5 interceptions which is tied for 20th in the league. To put that in perspective, the league leader in interceptions is the Baltimore Ravens with 12 picks and one player, Buffalo’s Micah Hyde, has the same number as the entire Bucs defense with five.
The sack situation is even worse. The Bucs rank 32nd in that category with only 7 total in seven games. To put that number in perspective, the Jacksonville Jaguars lead the league with 33 sacks. The Titans and Jets are tied for 30th worst in the league with 11 sacks, four more than the Bucs. Even worse, there are 10 players in the league that have just as many if not more sacks than the entire Bucs defense. The Cowboys Demarcus Lawrence has 10.5 himself, while the Jags Calais Campbell and the Vikings Everson Griffen have 10 each. There’s not a single Bucs player in the top 50 in the league for sacks. In fact, Clinton McDonald and Gerald McCoy lead the team with 2 sacks a piece. Defensive ends Robert Ayers and Noah Spence each have one sack as the Bucs “leading” edge rushers. I’ve seen the players CLAIM that they’re getting QB pressures, but they’re just not getting sacks. I find that hard to believe since they’re currently ranked 25th in the league in QB hits (35) while the Indianapolis Colts 67 lead the league. Pretty pathetic.
So, what’s the problem?
Are injuries to blame? Sure, the d-line has had their fair share so far this season. DE Jacquies Smith was supposed to return from his knee injury this season and give them a nice boost on the edge. He had a setback with that knee and was eventually released by the team. Noah Spence re-injured his shoulder and is now on the I.R. awaiting probable season ending surgery. DT DaVonte Lambert was put on I.R. along with DE Justin Trattou and DT Stevie Tu’ikolovatu. DE Ryan Russell has missed a couple of games with a dislocated shoulder. Injuries have definitely hampered this team, but are they really an excuse?
Is the scheme to blame? It hardly seems like that could be the case considering this same defensive system was responsible for 35 sacks and 18 interceptions last season. Not great numbers by any stretch, but far better than what’s projected for this season which is 16 sacks and 11 picks. Is Mike Smith “misusing” his players? Gerald McCoy seems to think so claiming that he’s been forced to play “out of position” when the team switches to a 3-4 defense. Now I have seen some media outlets point out that the Bucs have been using twists and stunts a bit more this season instead of straight power or speed rushing which is McCoy’s bread n butter. The reason behind that coaching decision? I dunno. That’s something you’d have to ask Mike Smith.
Is it the talent level? Let’s take a look at the Bucs current d-line players starting with Gerald McCoy. Despite what some Bucs fans think, he’s still one of the best interior defensive lineman in the league. Opposing coaches still have to game plan for him specifically. Since he entered the league in 2011, he’s had 44.5 sacks in 107 games. The only two players with better sacks per game average than him (.4 per game) are the Rams Aaron Donald and the Bengals Geno Atkins (both .6 per game). Other players averaging that same number of sacks per game are the Panthers Kawann Short, the Eagles Fletcher Cox, the Jags Marcell Darius and the Dolphins Ndamukong Suh.
Free-agent acquisition Chris Baker has had 11.5 sacks in 82 career games since 2012 from the 3-4 nose tackle position including 9.5 over his last two seasons with the Redskins. Clinton McDonald has 16 sacks in 53 games over his last 5 seasons battling through injuries almost every year. Sealver Siliga rounds out the defensive tackles (literally) and is known more as a run stopper than a pass rusher. However, there was a stretch when he had 5.5 sacks in 12 games with the Patriots so he has proven that he possesses the ability to rush the passer.
The Buccaneers defensive end group has been thinned out by injury, but the starters are still there. Robert Ayers, who has one sack this season, has 27 sacks in his last 58 games and hasn’t had less than 5 sacks in a season since 2012. He had 6.5 sacks last year and 9.5 sacks in 2015 for the Giants. Will Gholston is primarily known as a run stopper from the edge but he’s still had 10 sacks in 64 career games including 3 sacks in each of the last two seasons. Ryan Russell only had one sack in 8 games last year and has yet to reach the quarterback this season. Darryl Tapp is a newly acquired free agent who hasn’t had much success as of late getting to the quarterback with only 4.5 sacks in his last 5 seasons. However, he has shown the ability in the past with 23.5 sacks in his first 6 seasons in the league with Seattle and Philadelphia, including a 7 sack season in 2007 with the Seahawks. Will Clarke, another new acquisition, finishes off the Bucs current list of defensive ends and has 4.5 sacks in 35 career games with the Bengals. It’s not the lineup that we had at the start of the season and thought would be wreaking havoc on opposing quarterbacks, but it is what it is. There is certainly enough talent to get the job done. At least more than 7 sacks worth.
I am personally baffled by the lack of production. I thought that the addition of DT Chris Baker would have more of an effect on the Bucs interior rush. Maybe even take some of the double and triple teams away from McCoy in the middle or even free up the edge rushers some by demanding the occasional double team himself. None of that has happened. This defense is on pace for the lowest sack total in franchise history and the worst season that I could find was in 2011 when they totaled 23 with DE Adrian Clayborn leading the way with 7.5 sacks. Ugly stuff, folks.
So what’s the answer? Who the hell knows! Is it the coaching? Maybe, maybe not. Is it a lack of talent? Don’t think so necessarily. Is it a lack of effort from the players? I sure hope not. This Sunday in New Orleans marks the 8th game of this season…the midway point. It HAS to be the turning point, not only the defense but the team as a whole. A loss to the Saints makes them 2-6 on the year and 0-2 in the division. That’s bad. That’s really bad. They were 3-5 after 8 games last year and managed to turn things around winning 6 of their last 8 games. They’re going to need a similar second half this year to have any hopes of making the playoffs and it begins on Sunday. This defense will have to step up and shut down a Drew Brees led offense that ranks 6th in total yards (2,733), 4th in passing yards per game (272), 14th in rushing yards per game (119), and 6th in points per game (27.3). Will they be up to the task? Or will they continue their descent into the bowels of bad defensive football hell? We’ll find out on Sunday.
Until then, as always…GO BUCS!!!