TAMPA — Ask Bucs coaches about the improved depth and health of their defensive line, and they'll look around for a piece of wood to knock on.
A year after suffering through injury after injury, the Bucs enter this season excited about how much better their pass rush can be with improved depth and the fresh legs that come with being able to rotate in high-quality backups.
"To have a rotation keeps you more fresh," end Will Gholston said. "You can rush better; you can stop the run better. If I go out, if Gerald (McCoy) goes out and somebody can back them up and know exactly what to do, it's perfect."
When the Bucs had limited depth due to injuries last year, Gholston wasn't sure when he would get a play off; he played all but one snap in the first win against Carolina. But when the line was healthiest and the defense at its best during a five-game winning streak, Gholston played only 52 percent of the defensive snaps.
It was much the same for McCoy, a five-time Pro Bowl talent who has challenged himself to play at a higher level in the fourth quarter of games. To help him do that, the Bucs are making an effort to rotate him out earlier in games — adding Chris Baker will help with that immensely — so he has more left when a game is on the line late.
"We would like to keep (McCoy) fresher in terms of the number of snaps that he is going to play," defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. "We know long term, it's going to help us."
The Bucs have had similar production in sacks over the past four seasons: 35 in 2013, 36 in 2014 and 38 in each of the past two years. But take their sacks over the final six games of last year and it pro-rates to 45 over a full season, a sign of what a healthier group of pass-rushers is capable of doing.
Last year's injuries also provided vital experience for the Bucs' youngest defensive linemen. DaVonte Lambert, an undrafted rookie who was inactive in Week 1, was pressed into duty because of injuries and played 51 snaps in Week 3 and all but two in the Week 5 win against Carolina.
"We really have, like, five, six, seven guys that are starting-type guys," defensive line coach Jay Hayes said of his top rotation. "We're trying to find roles for everybody. Our philosophy is 'Next man up,' and whoever has to go, goes. I'm just trying to get the best mix of what I have and go from there."
The Bucs added end Ryan Russell in the third week of last season, and he spent six weeks on the practice squad before joining the roster for the second half of the season. He is battling for a backup job this year and sees how much a healthy, deep group of ends could be a catalyst for the defense.
"It's phenomenal," Russell said. "Robert Ayers, Will Gholston, Lambert coming in as a young player, Noah Spence … there's really no dropoff. The talent is amazing here, and the coaches do a great job of rotating us in and getting us a breather."
Ayers missed four games last year, as did tackle Clinton McDonald. Gholston missed two games, and Spence played much of the season with a shoulder injury that left him a one-armed man in many ways.
With nearly everyone healthy — end Jacquies Smith is recovering from a knee injury that cost him nearly all last season — there's competition all across the line for jobs, for snaps, for the right to get to opposing quarterbacks.
"Everybody's fighting to make the team, to make an impact on the team, to get to where we're trying to go," Russell said. "Every day is a battle. You don't want to survive the day, you want to thrive on the day. That's what Coach Dirk (Koetter) always tells us."