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Bucs’ resurgent run defense braces for another stern test in Cleveland

The unit will try to produce a domestic sequel to its stout performance in Germany.
Published Nov. 22|Updated Nov. 26

TAMPA — Seems even a bye week can cause a casualty or two. Despite an extended break, a vital component for the Bucs in Germany may or may not appear this weekend in Cleveland.

Momentum is probable at this point. Whether it can be salvaged depends highly on the resident run-stoppers, who had it frothing like suds oozing from a stein in Munich.

“We were clicking,” veteran lineman William Gholston said. “Everybody did their job; we watched the film. All hats were on deck, and we just did what we had to do.”

A top-three run defense each of the previous three seasons (including the No. 1 unit in 2019 and 2020), the Bucs were scuffling entering that overseas clash against the Seahawks, ranking 23rd in the NFL. But they held Seattle — the league’s 10th-best rushing team — to 39 yards, nearly 100 shy of its season average entering the game (133.8).

“We were not going to fly (overseas) — however it long it took — to go out there and let them run all over us,” second-year edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka said of that 21-16 triumph. “We had to stop that and make sure that was the focal point of the week.”

Question now is, will that fusion of timing, tackling, clairvoyance and collective ferocity manifest itself on domestic soil? It could be a prerequisite, considering an even more daunting challenge awaits.

Despite being mostly neutralized Sunday by Buffalo, the Browns (3-7) still possess the league’s fifth-best rushing attack (150.9 yards per game), led by the duo of Nick Chubb (923 rushing yards, 5.3 yards per attempt) and Kareem Hunt (346 yards, 3.9).

“When (the Browns) get off the plane, they’re going to run the ball,” Bucs defensive line coach and run-game coordinator Kacy Rodgers said.

“That’s how they’re built with their personnel and everything, and they’ve got a top-flight tandem at running back. ... And they didn’t do so well against Buffalo (26 carries, 80 yards), so they’ll be highly motivated to do well.”

The Bucs will need to contain Browns running back Nick Chubb, who averages 5.3 yards per rushing attempt.
The Bucs will need to contain Browns running back Nick Chubb, who averages 5.3 yards per rushing attempt. [ DUANE BURLESON | AP ]

After the inspiring effort of Rodgers’ unit in Germany, the motivation should be reciprocal.

The defensive front has been rejuvenated — and the team is undefeated — since 352-pound veteran Akiem Hicks returned from a plantar fascia tear three weeks ago. In Germany, Hicks and fellow interior behemoth Vita Vea logged 33 and 32 snaps, respectively, requiring double teams that created entryways for other run stuffers and pass rushers.

“You try to block (Hicks) one-on-one, he’s going to be able to get off and make the play,” Gholston said. “So to be able to have somebody — well, two guys, because Vita’s the same way — that (make the defense) say, ‘OK, I’ve got to put four hands on this man at all times,’ it opens up for the other defensive linemen as well.”

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Meantime, Tryon-Shoyinka, more critical to the pass rush now that Shaquil Barrett (torn Achilles) is done for the season, set the tone in Munich with a third-down sack of Geno Smith on Seattle’s opening possession. Linebacker Devin White had two of his own in arguably his best defensive effort of the year.

“I thought (Tryon-Shoyinka) stepped up when his number was called,” said Rodgers, who employed Tryon-Shoyinka on 92% of the defensive snaps (48 in all). “We’ve been kind of waiting for Joe to take that next step because he has all the tools: speed, athleticism, power. So it was good to see him get off the stick pretty good.”

The Bucs' Akiem Hicks gets to Seattle quarterback Geno Smith in Munich.
The Bucs' Akiem Hicks gets to Seattle quarterback Geno Smith in Munich. [ SVEN HOPPE | ZUMAPRESS.com ]

But in this week-to-week league, did a prolonged break allow such mojo to dissipate? Immediately after the Munich triumph, Bucs coach Todd Bowles said, “you almost don’t want to have a bye since you’ve won two in a row.”

On the flip side, the layoff offered the chance for rest and regeneration, and to scrutinize the Seahawks tape with the intent of building off it. Moreover, the team — which typically begins preparation for the next opponent on Wednesdays — had a “bonus” practice Monday.

“You take your time and you prepare at home (during the bye week), and you get a little away from football,” Gholston said. “But you understand that, ‘All right, this is what it took to win. This is what we did, this is how we prepared.’ And you try to model the rest of the season like that.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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