TAMPA — The NFL's quarterbacks have been put on notice.
Anyone who witnessed the Bucs' first nationally televised game of the Raheem Morris era likely walked away knowing Tampa Bay's defensive front is a handful.
And those not convinced could ask Colts quarterback Curtis Painter, who was battered by the Bucs — they registered four sacks for the second straight game.
While we might not yet be seeing the rebirth of the dominant Tony Dungy-Monte Kiffin defenses of the late '90s, the Bucs are getting back to their roots, winning with defense and opportunistic offense. Perhaps the best news is that there's tremendous room for growth in linemen such as Michael Bennett, Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, who the Bucs feel are only going to improve.
"I am fired up about those young guys, and they are getting better and better," Morris said. "We go out there each week, and I can see improvement."
Bennett had two sacks against the Colts, while McCoy and Clayborn had one each. Nearly as crucial was consistent pressure on Painter; the Bucs (3-1) tallied six quarterback hits, their most this season.
The pressure is coming from a variety of sources.
While rookie linebacker Mason Foster had been instrumental in rushing the passer in the first three games, left defensive end Bennett took center stage Monday. McCoy, who has been clogging the middle of the defense, got his first sack.
Seven players have at least one of the Bucs' 10 total sacks.
"The thing about us up front, we love when another guy gets (a sack)," McCoy said. "That's why we're a unit. When somebody else gets there, we all go crazy. That's what we want to do. That's why I was the first one to run over there (after Clayborn's sack). It was like, 'Man, let's keep it going. Let's get some more.' You build off that, and it makes the game fun.
"Coach says it takes all four, and it definitely does. We did that (Monday), and we all got our fair share. Everybody eats."
With all members of the defensive line having proved they can beat single blocks, there is a constant threat of a pass rush. Take Bennett's two sacks. He proved he can win one-on-one matchups, even when his path to the quarterback isn't a straight line.
On his first sack, Bennett leaped over running back Joseph Addai, who was attempting to undercut the oncoming rusher.
"I just saw the block, and I was like, 'Man, I need to make one of those Troy Polamalu plays,' " Bennett said, referencing the Steelers' All-Pro safety, "and I just jumped over him and stripped the ball."
The Bucs' much-improved pass rush affects more than the opposing quarterback. The pressure has, essentially, changed the complexion of games.
Tampa Bay had its widest margin in time of possession Monday, holding the ball 39 minutes to the Colts' 21 minutes. That's, in part, because the Bucs kept up the pressure on Painter and took advantage of pass-rush opportunities that forced low-percentage throws and, ultimately, punts.
Another result of the intensified pressure: The Bucs can use frequent man-to-man coverage in the secondary, freeing up an extra defender to stop the run.
"I'm really just enjoying the moment and enjoying what those guys are doing up front," Morris said. "And hopefully it will translate into more wins and a better football team at the end of the day."