TAMPA — The Buccaneers have faith.
Faith in a defensive line that has not produced even an average amount of sacks in recent years. Faith that some of these linemen can perform in a way they have never done before in the NFL. Faith in a system that necessitates a fierce pass rush.
They have this faith because, really, they have no other choice.
Much of Tampa Bay's season could depend on the gains — or Gaines, as the case may be — made by the defensive ends. If Stylez White builds on the impact he had in 2007, the Bucs might be in decent shape. If Jimmy Wilkerson offers more than Kevin Carter did last season, the Bucs could be all right. If Gaines Adams begins to live up to his high draft billing, the Bucs may actually be pretty good.
"We're only going to go, defensively, as far as our pass rush will take us," defensive line coach Todd Wash said. "We know that."
This is not a new concept. Next to quarterback, a star defensive end might be the most coveted position on the field. A coach has a much better chance of finding true love than hooking up with a Pro Bowl pass rusher.
"The pass rush is one of the hardest things to achieve in pro football," defensive coordinator Jim Bates said.
That, of course, is not news to you. The last time the Bucs had a player with more than eight sacks was 2005, which was also the last time Tampa Bay won at least 10 games. Since then, the pass rush has been mostly dreadful with occasional bursts of mediocrity. In the last four seasons, the Bucs have finished 20th, 16th, 30th and 18th in sacks.
Which brings us to the 2009 line, which looks a lot like the 2008 line. Adams, White and Wilkerson are all back after combining for 16.5 sacks last season. Which is the same amount Atlanta defensive end John Abraham got on his own.
The difference, the Bucs hope, is a little extra maturity and some different approaches in schemes. Bates has made a pretty good living over the years as a defensive coordinator who has found some pretty reliable routes to the quarterback. And that's a requirement in his system because Bates uses man-to-man coverage in the secondary.
"If we're playing man-to-man defense, we better be able to get to the quarterback. Because they can only cover for so long, and if we're not getting pressure then we've got issues," Wash said. "In a true zone package, a lot of times it's a quick five-step drop and the ball is out. Half the time, you're not going to get to the passer even if you're scot-free.
"But in this defense, the quarterback is going to hold it longer and we have to be able to get there."
Bates' system is designed to get defensive ends in one-on-one situations as much as possible. Which seems obvious when you look at his history as a coordinator. In 1999, the year before Bates took over in Miami, Jason Taylor had 2.5 sacks and Trace Armstrong had 7.5. The next season, Taylor had 14.5 and Armstrong had 16.5. He had similar results in Denver in 2007 when Elvis Dumervil had a career-high 12.5 sacks with Bates as the defensive coordinator.
The hope is that he will have similar success with Adams, who has been something of a one-trick pony as a pass rusher. Adams has terrific quickness, which made him a star at Clemson, but offensive tackles in the NFL are a different breed. Once they figured out Adams was a pure speed rusher with very little power, they adjusted accordingly.
"We can't compare ourselves to some of the athletes he's had in the past," White said. "But we can hold ourselves up to that level. We can try to do the things Jason Taylor did with him in Miami. We're still adjusting to this defense, but hopefully we can make it happen."
The early results are at least promising. Through the first two preseason games, the Bucs have recorded six sacks, though Adams and Wilkerson have yet to bring down a quarterback.
The Bucs will blitz if necessary, but that is not typically the way Bates operates. In his eight seasons as an NFL defensive coordinator, more than 83 percent of his sacks have come from defensive linemen.
One possible difference here is linebacker Quincy Black. The Bucs see him as a special case and might even line him up as a defensive end against some of the slower right tackles in the league.
"If you can't build a good four-man rush and you just rely on blitizing it will catch up to you," Bates said. "You can't rely on the blitz alone in this league. But it's a game of situations, and where we are as a pressure team will determine what we have to do week to week."
For now, it's all plans, conjecture and theories.
And a lot of faith.
John Romano can be reached at [email protected]