TAMPA — Adrian Clayborn thinks back to the best showing by the Bucs defensive line and it all starts to make sense.
He reflected this week on Tampa Bay's first meeting with the Falcons on Sept. 25 — the teams meet again Sunday — and Clayborn realizes why there's been such an obsession with rebuilding the front four.
"If you just look back at that game, we stopped the run, we had four sacks, and that's what we're here to do," Clayborn said. "We want to stop the run and get after people. That's what we're looking forward to."
At this point, looking forward means to next season. The Bucs are 4-11 and a big reason why is that the defensive line, the centerpiece of the team's nearly 3-year-old reconstruction project, has rarely taken the field as intended.
Injuries are mostly to blame, but the goal was to deploy two pairs of first- and second-round picks in tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, and ends Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers.
McCoy and Price were drafted last year, and Clayborn and Bowers are rookies. They still haven't started as a quartet.
The closest they came was that game against the Falcons. That day, Clayborn began growing comfortable three weeks in, McCoy seemed in midseason form, and Price was as healthy as he had been since becoming a Buc. Bowers came off the bench and was a factor, too. Atlanta rushed for 30 yards, and quarterback Matt Ryan completed just 55 percent of his 47 attempts.
Soon, things unraveled for the Bucs. McCoy suffered a high ankle sprain two weeks later, then sustained a season-ending biceps injury immediately after returning from a two-game absence. Price, who spent most of 2010 on injured reserve because of a rare pelvic condition, has been dealing with two sore ankles for weeks.
With the two 2010 draft picks sidelined or slowed, Bowers finally got healthy after his offseason knee surgery and has started the past five games. Clayborn is the only one who has been largely uninjured. He ranks third among NFL rookies with 7½ sacks.
All this is both frustrating and promising. The Bucs can't help but think about what might have been while longing to see what they think is a bright future.
"I (saw) enough of all four of them on the field to see what a glimpse could look like," coach Raheem Morris said. "I'm excited about what's to come. That's what I look at every day among the doom and gloom, among the clouds."
McCoy is the most crucial piece. Until he can stay on the field consistently, the rebuilding plan will be missing a piece of its foundation. The three-technique defensive tackle's job is to disrupt and allow others to make plays.
"(First) you go out there and get the one mountain on offense: (quarterback Josh) Freeman," Morris said. "The same thing happens on defense. You go out there and you get the other mountain, and we went out and got Gerald McCoy. He showed us flashes of greatness when he's been out there. It's not about production with a guy like that. It's about what he does for the people around him."
Price has been frustrated with his health but believes he can be 100 percent entering 2012. If so, it would be the first time since his college days at UCLA.
"Two ankles, two hamstrings. Hey, nobody really cares," Price said. "You just don't make excuses and keep showing up."
Price was asked how eager he is to show fans the player he can be. "Nobody has (seen that) yet," he said. "I haven't even seen him yet. Next year, I'm looking forward to some big things. (I plan) to just come back and dominate."
Until then, all the talk is, well, talk. There is much conviction at One Buc Place that Tampa Bay has the right guys up front. All they have to do is prove it, together.
"There's potential," Price said. "But the NFL is not based on potential. It's about what you do right now. Hopefully, next year, our 'right now' will be great."