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Bucs must improve their defensive line

Published Mar. 2, 2014

INDIANAPOLIS — The NFL is a copycat league, so given the success of the Super Bowl champion Seahawks and their wave of pass rushers, you would expect teams to attempt to copy that formula.

"They're Super Bowl champions, but that's been our blueprint all along," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "When (I was the coach) in Chicago, we brought in Julius Peppers, one of the best moves we ever made there. We're always looking for defensive linemen.

"It has to start up front for us defensively. When I say up front, it is the engine of our defense and what we do. If you have to rely on all-out blitzes every down to get pressure, you've got trouble. … We want to be able to rush four guys and get pressure. That's what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers were built on. That hasn't changed."

With the exception of two-time Pro Bowl tackle Gerald McCoy, who led the Bucs with a career-high 91/2 sacks last season, the Bucs struggled to get pressure with their front four. Tampa Bay was tied for 23rd in sacks with 35, seven coming from linebacker Lavonte David.

The Bucs haven't had a player reach double-digit sacks in a season since 2005, when Simeon Rice had 14. Rice has been retired from the NFL for seven years.

"Every year I've been in the league, we've run the same defense," Smith said. "We have to have a double-digit sack guy on the outside, and we don't have that right now."

That's what makes this offseason so intriguing for the Bucs. With the possible exception of safety, they have needs at every position on defense.

Free agency, which begins March 11, will be an avenue for the Bucs to travel for pass rushers. One possibility is end Jared Allen, who played the past six seasons with the Vikings, three under head coach Leslie Frazier, the Bucs' new defensive coordinator. But Allen could be costly (he made nearly $12 million last season), and currently the Bucs are about $18.8 million below the $133 million salary cap.

Other free agent ends worth considering are the Seahawks' (and ex-Buc) Michael Bennett, the Bengals' Michael Johnson and the Bears' Corey Wootton.

But the Bucs also could find a difference-maker in May's draft, perhaps with the No. 7 overall pick. South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney has great athletic ability at 6 feet 6, 266 pounds and might be worthy of the No. 1 overall pick. Scouts have questioned his work ethic and commitment, but after his workout at the scouting combine last month, it's unlikely he would slip within range of the Bucs at No. 7.

University of Buffalo outside linebacker Khalil Mack might be one of the most natural pass rushers in the draft. At 6-3, 248, he is a prototype outside linebacker in a 3-4 but also could play strongside linebacker in a 4-3 and be a weapon in pass-rush situations.

Mack set a Division I-A career record with 16 forced fumbles and had 281/2 career sacks, drawing comparisons to Broncos sack-master Von Miller.

"You can never have too many defensive ends," Smith said. "The moment you say they're all set with defensive ends, bam, you'll say, 'Can you believe they signed another guy?' But that's the case. We always look for defensive linemen.

"It really starts with an overall philosophy of how the game works, which is eliminating big plays and playing great up front."

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Aside from McCoy, the Bucs haven't gotten much production from their linemen. Adrian Clayborn, who missed 13 games in 2012 with a torn right ACL, has flipped between left and right end and has 131/2 sacks over his other two seasons. William Gholston, a rookie from Michigan State, had some good moments at the end of 2013, when he emerged as a starter.

"Is he a speed rusher? No, not necessarily a speed rusher off the edge, but he is a complete defensive end," Smith said. "How we judge defensive linemen: Can he pass rush? It's not a guy playing the run. He's a good run player. To me, what distinguishes defensive linemen is can he rush the passer."

Da'Quan Bowers, who had only seven tackles and one sack in 13 games last season, also has disappointed.

"He's another player with poten­tial," Smith said. "Can he take the next step?

"Clayborn has been a good, solid player. But solid gets us 4-12. We have to be better at those positions. We've got to get more guys that can run and hit. I know that's generic. But that's the game, and it's true. That's what we're going to do is to keep upgrading our roster. We're not there."

Too little pressure

According to sportscharts.com, the Bucs recorded sacks on 6.01 percent of the plays in which their opponent tried to pass in 2013. That was 22nd in the league. The league average was 6.67, and seven of the top 10 teams made the playoffs:

Team SacksPasses Pct.

1. Panthers * 60 623 9.63

2. Rams 53 574 9.23

3. Bills 57 618 9.22

4. Saints * 49 556 8.81

5. Seahawks *44 568 7.75

6. Packers * 44 583 7.54

7. Patriots * 48 637 7.54

8. Chiefs * 47 639 7.36

9. Colts * 42 578 7.27

10. Cardinals 47 672 6.99

* Made playoffs

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