Bucs must find way to pressure 3 rookie quarterbacks in next 5 games

Head coach Todd Bowles could make more use of other outside pass rushers, such as YaYa Diaby and Anthony Nelson.
Bucs outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) reaches toward Baltimore Ravens quarterback Josh Johnson (17) during an exhibition game in August at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka (9) reaches toward Baltimore Ravens quarterback Josh Johnson (17) during an exhibition game in August at Raymond James Stadium. [ JEFFEREE WOO | Times ]
Published Nov. 5, 2023

TAMPA — The Bucs will face three rookie quarterbacks in the next five games: the Texans’ C.J. Stroud, Titans’ Will Levis and Panthers’ Bryce Young.

A couple of years ago, coach Todd Bowles said he likes to go after rookie quarterbacks with an array of pressure packages. “If they drop their head to watch the rush,” Bowles said, “you’ve got them.”

That’s exactly what the Bucs may need today against the Texans as they try to snap a three-game losing streak.

Stroud, the No. 2 overall pick, has been unflappable and the best of the rookie class of quarterbacks. His nine touchdowns and only one interception prove that.

The Bucs have 18 sacks, which is tied for 18th in the league. But neither Shaquil Barrett nor Joe Tryon-Shoyinka are off to great starts, and that’s where the pressure needs to come from. Barrett has two sacks, only one since Week 2. Tryon-Shoyinka has three, well on his way to eclipsing his career high of four.

Nose tackle Vita Vea still leads the club with with 3½ sacks despite missing the most recent game at Buffalo.

It’s pretty clear the torn Achilles injury to Barrett, 30, has reduced some of his explosiveness. He said the defense needs to get the coverage and rush working together.

“We haven’t been synchronized that much this year with the rush and coverage, but I think we are going to get better at it,” he said. “We (are) working on better eyes on the quarterback. We are working on the fundamentals and making sure we are fundamentally sound.”

Barrett also said the Bucs aren’t getting any help from the officials.

“(There have) been a few times that I would get my facemask grabbed,” he said. “I get held a lot, like, for real. It’s frustrating. I talked to the ref, (and) they don’t say anything. It’s kind of frustrating now. If I could get some calls, third and 10 would turn into a third and 20, or something like that.

“We will work on it. I don’t like that bringing my position group down, and we haven’t been doing what we have been wanting to do as a group. We are most definitely going to get it fixed, because that is unacceptable.”

Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) sacks Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during a game in September at Raymond James Stadium.
Bucs outside linebacker Shaquil Barrett (7) sacks Chicago Bears quarterback Justin Fields (1) during a game in September at Raymond James Stadium. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]

Whatever the problem, it may be time for Bowles to utilize some of his other outside pass rushers more frequently.

Anthony Nelson has played 37% of the defensive snaps this season. He had four tackles, a sack and two tackles for loss at Buffalo in a limited role. Rookie outside linebacker YaYa Diaby also notched his first career sack against the Bills.

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“It felt good to see that,” Barrett said. “I know he’s been out there out working at it, and he finally had that moment to get the first one out of the way. Now he can start stacking them. It’s going to be big for him.”

Is it time for Bowles to change the starting lineup? No. But should Nelson and Diaby be on the field more? Probably.

Nothing lights a fire like competition.

“He’s in the rotation. He plays a good amount,” Bowles said of Nelson. “The first four guys play a good amount. Cam (Gill) probably plays the least, but they all get their turn. We’ve got to be better all the way around. I know (Nelson) got a sack and YaYa (Diaby) got one, but we’ve got to be better from a pressure standpoint — not necessarily from a sack standpoint, but you’ve got to at least harass the quarterback.”

This would be a good game to start doing just that.

Could Wolford be No. 2?

It may have surprised some that No. 3 quarterback John Wolford, who had been on the practice squad, preferred to remain in Tampa Bay rather than head to a quarterback-needy club such as the Rams or Vikings.

But Wolford has family in the area and around Florida, and preferred to remain with the Bucs after they agreed to sign him to their 53-man roster.

“Practically speaking, it’s good to have three guys that you trained,” offensive coordinator Dave Canales said. “And he’s got history in somewhat of the same system. But just going through camp and getting all those reps and what he brings to the quarterback room is super important.

“For me, it just makes me feel good that the guy wanted to be here and believes in what we’re building, believes in what we’re doing and believes in how we treat each other and the family we’re building here.”

Wolford is a quick study and runs the Bucs’ scout team. He has familiarity with the offense Canales has installed because it’s similar to the Rams’, where he played under Sean McVay and even started a playoff game.

With Wolford on the 53-man roster, you have to wonder if the Bucs might turn to him in the short term if Mayfield missed a game or two with an injury.

Kyle Trask is the clear No. 2, but Wolford has started two games in this league.

Best ever?

High praise came to the Bucs from Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. Speaking earlier this year to former Tampa Bay tight end Rob Gronkowski on his “New Heights” podcast with his brother Jason, Kelce said the Bucs’ Super Bowl 55 championship team was the best he’s ever played against.

“They had some studs, man,” Kelce said.

“That was honestly the greatest football team I think I’ve ever played against. You guys were stacked. By the end of the season, you guys were playing flawless football, man.”

Playing in pain

Injuries have never been a favorite topic of Tom Brady’s. But the former Bucs quarterback revealed last week on his “Let’s Go!” podcast that he separated his right throwing shoulder during a quarterback sneak for a touchdown against Buffalo in 2021.

“I separated my right shoulder on a quarterback sneak on the goal line,” Brady told Bills QB Josh Allen. “(Matt) Milano, in the end zone, separated my right shoulder and it bothered me for the rest of the season.”

The Bucs and Brady lost the next week to the Saints, 9-0 at Raymond James Stadium.

Brady didn’t appear on the injury report prior to that game except for “resting.” The Friday before the Saints game, the Bucs listed him as full participation (not injury related-resting player/right shoulder).

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