TAMPA — For many, the recent surge by Bucs defensive end Michael Bennett this preseason has been rather surprising.
Then there's coach Raheem Morris, who says he isn't the least bit stunned.
But Morris didn't come to expect Bennett's relentless pass rush and aggressive run stuffing until recently, when the coach spent many idle moments during the lockout re-examining Bennett's film.
The more Morris watched, the more he realized how much he'd missed at first glance.
"I guess that's how he's changed," Morris said. "(It's) the opportunities he's been given. I blame me. … I had a feeling that he would come back after looking at (film) all offseason because I had nothing else to do. You really saw him make splash plays time after time."
Now Bennett's chances are coming with more consistency. And the third-year player from Texas A&M has reinforced his coach's opinion, starring in Saturday's preseason win over the Dolphins and solidifying — for now — the starting left defensive end job over rookie Da'Quan Bowers.
For all the money and high draft picks the Bucs have invested in the defensive line in the past two offseasons, it's surprising that Bennett — who wasn't drafted — is making one of the most noticeable impacts.
The Bucs claimed Bennett, 25, off waivers from the Seahawks in October 2009. Seattle released the then-rookie free agent before he appeared in a game. And he remained largely a fringe player in Tampa Bay until late last season.
But Bennett began to show growth. Soon, his football awareness started to become obvious.
"I think I've improved in (understanding) the game, just knowing what's going on," Bennett said. "That's just becoming mature."
Bennett also proved to be a hard worker, something that only enhanced his chances of playing. After Bennett spent the first three weeks of 2010 inactive, Morris and his staff could no longer keep him on the sideline. In an attempt to stimulate the pass rush, they began incorporating Bennett more in the rotation.
On Dec. 4, with Redskins running back Ryan Torain gashing the Bucs, Morris substituted Bennett for defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who had left the game with a season-ending biceps tear.
Despite ever-changing roles and various amounts of playing time, Bennett rarely disappointed. His numbers weren't big (one sack in 2010), but his versatility and toughness were undeniable.
"They weren't always sacks," Morris said. "They were just violent plays. He had to go to 3-technique and finish the game for us, and he didn't blink.
"That's big time."
Bennett is now the starter, in part, because of his ability to play the run. For as much as the Bucs struggled to rush the passer last season (26 sacks, tied for 30th of 32 teams), their difficulty stopping the run was a byproduct.
"Last year, we talked about the (lack of) sacks, but the big reason we're not getting sacks has to do with not stopping the run," Bennett said. "You don't have as many opportunities as you're supposed to have.
"If we stop the run, we're going to have third downs and get what we deserve. It's like a treat. Now it's time to go hunt."
A majority of running plays go to the defense's left, so Bennett's role against the run is critical.
"He's doing a really good job of setting the edge out there," defensive line coach Grady Stretz said. "And the other thing is to be able to play physical out there. Mike has a good stature and good physical attributes, and then he really brings the toughness as well."
One of the results of Bennett's consistent play this preseason is the luxury it has provided the Bucs, who are under no pressure to rush Bowers, 21. The rookie is coming off knee surgery and, after being limited in the offseason, has had to play his way into football shape. Bennett's play has taken the pressure off.
"Any time you can have two good players at one spot, it's definitely a plus," said Bowers, a second-round pick who led major colleges with 151/2 sacks at Clemson in 2010.
"Mike is the vet. He's the starter right now. It's my job to push him. Mike doesn't want to lose his starting job, and I'm working to get a starting job. So it's just a complete battle, but we also complement each other."
Eventually, Bowers will get his shot. All he has to do is catch his coach's eyes. You know, the way Bennett has.