Bucs defense's success hinges on dominant front four

Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) sacks St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens (10) for a loss of ten yards during the fourth quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Sunday, December 22, 2013.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy (93) sacks St. Louis Rams quarterback Kellen Clemens (10) for a loss of ten yards during the fourth quarter at the Edward Jones Dome in St. Louis on Sunday, December 22, 2013.
Published June 8, 2014


They don't have to become a legendary legion of pass rushers, the Pewter People Eaters or even comparable to the best defensive fronts in NFL history. But if the Bucs are going to have any success under coach Lovie Smith in 2014 — on either side of the ball — lay it all on the defensive line.

The quartet of Gerald McCoy, Clinton McDonald, Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn have to affect opposing quarterbacks using a four man rush. If they don't hold up, the season will collapse as well.

It's just that simple.

"There's no question. You talk about we're the engine, we're the motor that drives the engine," defensive line coach Joe Cullen said. "Well, the guys inside are the pistons that drive it. They have to. We don't ask them to do a lot. We ask them to beat a one-on-one block. We ask them to go vertical. We ask them to get on the edge of a blocker. We ask them not to memorize a lot of things.''

That's the way this system was built. It's a friendly system up front. But it's also a system that puts a lot pressure on those guys, coaches, players. But you know what? That's what comes with the territory."

The Bucs defensive line contributed 20 quarterback takedowns in 2013 led by McCoy's 9 ½ sacks. The two-time Pro Bowl pick is the tone setter under tackle, finally playing the same position and defense as Hall of Famer Warren Sapp.

Bucs defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier says McCoy's game and leadership is even better than he anticipated.

(McCoy) has been very, very impressive," Frazier said. "I've watched him from a distance and seen some of his tape since we've played common opponents. I remember him coming out of college and he's a joy. To have your best player working as hard as he does every single day, he sets a great example for the rest of our defense and really the rest of the team."

What about the other keys to the defensive front?

Adrian Clayborn will be asked to switch from the right to the left side to make room for Johnson, a free agent from the Bengals. Clayborn played both sides a year ago but is primarily a right defensive end. He rushed from a two-point stance primarily but had his best success in a traditional three-point stance.

"I look back to his rookie year when he had his hand in the dirt at all times just going vertical, getting off the ball, being disruptive, 7½ sacks from the right side," Cullen said.

Free agents Johnson and McDonald will be immediate starters. Johnson had 11½ sacks two years ago for the Bengals, but the injury to DT Geno Atkins slid a lot of attention to Johnson last season and his sack total fell to 3½. He is 6 feet 7, 270 pounds with an explosive first step and exceptional length.

McDonald, who had 5½ sacks at tackle and won a Super Bowl ring with the Seahawks, is a big upgrade over Tim Spencer.

"(McDonald's) even more impressive being around him, not just as a player on the field but his personality. How he approaches practice, and I know it won't be any different with the games based on what we saw on tape, he's all business," Frazier said.

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The player who will have to improve is DE Da'Quan Bowers, who had seven tackles and one sack in 13 games last season.

"He's practicing now. He's working on getting into shape. He's not there yet. He's got to get into great shape to be able to do those things. I see a lot of signs that he could be what everybody thought. Again, a lot of that will depend on how he gets into shape," Cullen said.

The season, however, depends on how the Bucs' front four rushes the quarterback.

"Pass rush in our league is everything," Frazier said. "You don't want to live and die by the blitz in our league. You've got to find a way to rush with four."