Bucs vs. Colts 8:30 p.m. Monday; Raymond James Stadium; TV/radio: ESPN; 620-AM, 103.5-FM
TAMPA — Shortly after Bucs rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn bull-rushed his way to his first NFL sack, a jarring hit that separated the football from Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on Sunday, the happiest player on the field wasn't the one receiving high-fives.
"I got up and I said: 'Clay! Congratulations, brother. You got yours out of the way a whole lot earlier than I did,' " defensive tackle Gerald McCoy said.
McCoy knows something about pressure, the kind you can either feel or apply. The third overall pick in 2010, he registered his first NFL sack in the ninth game of his rookie season.
This season, McCoy is waiting on his first sack but has a club-best nine quarterback pressures, including six against the Falcons. One reason Ryan couldn't escape Clayborn is because McCoy had both arms around his legs.
Defensive tackle Brian Price, a second-round pick from UCLA who played only five games as a rookie, also notched his first pro sack Sunday. The confidence in the group of young, athletic, relentless defensive linemen has emboldened coach Raheem Morris to scrap the staid Tampa 2 for aggressive man-to-man coverage.
"You bring guys in the past two drafts, all defensive linemen, it's clear what you want and what you expect and how much you believe in those guys," McCoy said. "Coach Morris, on the sideline, he said: 'Look, I've got all the faith in you guys who were brought here to do what you do. So go out there and show me.' The next drive, we got pressure on the first play. The next play was the sack-fumble.
"It felt good. We came to the sideline and said, 'Hey look. You see how this feels? Let's keep feeling it and build off of it.' "
With the exception of the 27-20 loss to the Lions, who got the football out of the hand of quarterback Matthew Stafford using three-step drops, the Bucs have dialed up the pressure. They had two sacks and eight pressures on Vikings quarterback Donovan McNabb. Last week, the Bucs sacked Ryan four times, hit him on four other occasions and pressured him 20 times.
Good pass coverage and a good pass rush go hand-in-hand. The Bucs are fortunate to have among the league's best tandem of cover corners, Aqib Talib and 36-year-old Ronde Barber, who each has an interception.
"We relish in it, because we know if we're in man coverage, we've got a chance," Bucs defensive line coach Keith Millard said. "So for us, it's like a green light. It's 'Here we come, no matter what. We're getting off the ball and we're getting to a spot.' "
Bucs defensive backs coach Jimmy Lake said he knew pressuring the quarterback wasn't going to be a problem this season.
"I told you guys a couple weeks ago the rush was coming," Lake said. "It showed up statistically, but we've seen it on tape where it was just near misses.
"You see Clayborn's sack? Aqib was all over Julio Jones and Matt Ryan is looking at him. He wants to throw the football, but he had to hold it and Gerald McCoy is coming up. He tried to step away from Gerald and bam! Here comes Clayborn."
The Bucs defensive front still has a long way to go before opponent's gains are measured in inches instead of yards, the way it was with the great Tampa Bay defenses. But they seem to be in a rush to get there.
"Gerald McCoy, Adrian Clayborn, Brian Price, Da'Quan Bowers — that's why you coveted these high picks for, to get after the quarterback and put people on the ground," Morris said.
"In this game and at those moments, they came through in a big way. That's what Buccaneers football has always been about. (Warren) Sapp and those guys wanted to get in the two-minute situations and make you throw the ball so they can get after you. I can't wait to watch these guys hunt."