Buccaneers defense was among NFL's best when its pressure got to the QB

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded 6.5 sacks last season, but many of his other contributions didn't show up in the box scores. [ANDRES LEIVA   |   Times]

Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy recorded 6.5 sacks last season, but many of his other contributions didn't show up in the box scores. [ANDRES LEIVA | Times]
Published Jun. 29, 2017

It doesn't matter how many times they've thrown a football. It doesn't matter how many seasons they've played. It doesn't matter whether they have a degree from Harvard or Central Florida.

Every NFL quarterback, from Tom Brady to Jameis Winston, is less successful when he faces pressure from the defense.

The flip side: Defenses are more successful when they generate pressure.

RELATED STORY: How Winston performed under pressure in 2016

Sacks are box score scouts' go-to measure of pressure. That makes sense — they're easy to count. The Buccaneers had 38 of them last season, one every 14.4 opponent pass attempts, which ranked ninth.

Sacks, though, don't tell the whole story. Pressure, even if it doesn't result in a sack, can be just as — if not more — effective. Maybe it leads to an incompletion or a turnover. In those cases, a lineman won't receive any credit in the box score, which can lead some to underrate players such as Gerald McCoy, one of the league's most disruptive interior defenders.

Tampa Bay defensive coordinator Mike Smith has gone as far as calling sacks "overrated" numerous times over the years.

"It's about hurrying the quarterback and knocking the quarterback down after he throws the football," he said in 2011 as head coach of the Falcons. "Those are the plays that have a cumulative effect, not only on the quarterback but on the offense in general, and that's really the reason that we emphasize our pressure on the quarterback. The sacks, again, are overrated."

Last season, Smith's defense generated pressure — which includes sacks, hurries and forced scrambles — on 24.7 percent of pass plays, according to Football Outsiders. While that rate was below the league average of 27.1 percent, the Bucs defense was among the best when its pressure got to the quarterback, as measured by FO's Defense-adjusted Value Over Average statistic*. DVOA is expressed as a percentage, and when discussing defenses, a negative percentage is better than a positive percentage. For example, a defense with a -10 percent overall DVOA is 10 percent better than an average defense.

As you would expect, every defense produced a better DVOA last season when it generated pressure than when it didn't. Tampa Bay's -89.2 percent value with pressure ranked second in the NFL, just 3 points behind Arizona. That represents a significant improvement for the Bucs, who in 2015 produced a below-average -64.3 percent value with pressure.

When it failed to generate pressure, Tampa Bay wasn't nearly as effective. The Bucs' DVOA jumped to 24.2 percent, an increase of more than 110 points. Even so, that was good enough for eighth and also was an improvement over 2015. The season-over-season gains speak to the contributions of cornerback Brent Grimes and safety Keith Tandy, who together were responsible for about half of the team's interceptions.

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TeamPressure rate (rank)DVOA with pressure (rank)DVOA no pressure (rank)
2016 Bucs24.7% (25)-89.2% (2)24.2% (8)
2016 average27.1%-60.3%33.5%
2015 Bucs24.4% (23)-64.3% (20)47.0% (28)
2015 average25.6%-67.3%35.5%
Source: Football Outsiders

Tampa Bay's success when its pressure reached the quarterback is promising, but its inability to apply pressure more consistently without blitzing is worth monitoring as it enters its second season under Smith's instruction. The Bucs' standard four-man rush didn't get to the quarterback often in 2016; the 22.7 percent rate of pressure was the sixth-lowest. When the defense blitzed (five or more rushers), it generated pressure 36.1 percent of the time, close to the league average rate.

As far as blitzes are concerned, don't expect Tampa Bay to become much more aggressive. Mike Smith isn't as blitz averse as Lovie Smith, but he's going to rely heavily on his front four, which explains the offseason signing of defensive tackle Chris Baker. He recorded 42 pressures last season, according to Pro Football Focus (McCoy finished with 49). If the Bucs' rate of pressure is to increase, his presence, along with the development of defensive end Noah Spence, will be the key to that improvement.

Contact Thomas Bassinger at Follow @tometrics.

*FO's definition: "DVOA breaks down the entire season play-by-play, comparing success on each play to the league average based on a number of variables including down, distance, location on field, current score gap, quarter, and opponent quality."