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Bucs pass rushers will need to step up against tough slate of QBs

Gerald McCoy, wearing handband, led the Bucs with seven sacks in 2016; there’s hope end Noah Spence, far left, becomes more of a pass-rushing threat.
Gerald McCoy, wearing handband, led the Bucs with seven sacks in 2016; there’s hope end Noah Spence, far left, becomes more of a pass-rushing threat.
Published Aug. 5, 2017

TAMPA — In this, the weekend for induction ceremonies at the Pro Football Hall of Fame, it's appropriate to take the roll call of the quarterbacks appearing on the Bucs schedule this season who might be headed to Canton, Ohio, one day.

The Patriots' Tom Brady. Duh. The Giants' Eli Manning has lifted two Lombardi Trophies. The Packers' Aaron Rodgers, especially if he wins another Super Bowl. Drew Brees? He's only a season or two from running down Brett Favre for second on the all-time passing list. Don't close the book on the Falcons' Matt Ryan or the Panthers' Cam Newton.

You would be hard-pressed to find a season when the Bucs defense faced more pressure to produce pressure on opposing quarterbacks.

Tampa Bay was tied for ninth in the NFL in sacks last season with 38. But 21 came in the second half of the season, when the team went 6-2, including 13 during the team's five-game winning streak.

"It's a quarterback-driven league, and you try to get pressure on the quarterback as much as you can, right up in his face," linebacker Lavonte David said.

But where will those pressures and sacks come from?

The Bucs are extremely thin when it comes to outside pass rushers. It didn't help that Jacquies Smith, who missed nearly all of 2016 with a torn ACL, had a setback last week and needed another surgical procedure that could force him to miss most of the preseason.

Once again, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the Bucs in sacks last season with seven, his fewest since 2012. While McCoy continues to face double-teams, the Bucs need to get more from defensive ends Robert Ayers (61/2 sacks in 12 games) and second-year pro Noah Spence (51/2 sacks).

For nostalgia's sake, it's time to trot out the confounding stat that no Bucs player has had 10 sacks in a season since defensive end Simeon Rice in 2005.

"We've got a lot of guys I think can do it," Ayers said. "I definitely hold myself to the highest standard out of everybody. I expect myself to have a great year. I expect Noah to have a great year. Gerald, (Chris Baker), when Jacquies gets back — everybody. It's not like we're excited, but we hold ourselves to a high standard. That's the only way to play this game. We expect greatness. That's what I do for myself every day, and that's what I do for this unit."

In fact, Ayers has predicted Spence, who spent nearly his entire rookie season gritting through a separated shoulder, would get 15 sacks in 2017. If he does, it would match the remarkable turnaround by Falcons linebacker Vic Beasley, who went from four sacks as a rookie to leading the league with 151/2 last season.

But what would the Bucs do if something happens to Ayers or Spence again? There's no way of predicting what they will get from Smith. Defensive end Will Gholston has never had more than three sacks in any season. Defensive end Ryan Russell got some push and one sack in eight games a year ago. Baker, a free agent defensive tackle from Washington, hit his high-water mark with six sacks in 2015.

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Bill Walsh, the late 49ers head coach, compared fourth-quarter sacks to the final rounds of a heavyweight fight when one boxer is rallying and the other is groggy.

But the league is constantly evolving, and it's rare to find a defensive end who is going to get 15-20 sacks per season. Sixteen players reached double digits last year, and only seven recorded more than 11.

What you see more and more is an array of pressure packages, bonsai blitzes, linebackers crashing the A-gap and cover zero.

"Defenses are so much more sophisticated in trying to pick and get guys free," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said.

"The two linebackers standing up in the A-gap, the double A-gap package, the Bear package (46 defense) has gone full circle. It went away, and now it's back. Defenses mugging their linebackers up so you have to count them in your protection. There's just a lot more to it. And our D is doing a really nice job with it right now. They're doing some stuff that's ahead of the curve right now, I think. You never know until you get in a game. But I'm glad they're on our side."

In fact, defensive coordinator Mike Smith did a better job of utilizing linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David in the pass-rush game the second half of the season. Four of David's five sacks came in the final three games.

"I talked to Coach Smith, and he said there were some I let slip out of my hands, and this year I want to be attacking as much as I can," David said. "I expect to get a lot better at it so hopefully I have more than I had last year. We've got guys who can rush the passer, but really, it's a team thing."

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