Bucs' success depends on Michael Johnson pressuring QBs

Michael Johnson, left, participates in OTAs at One Buc Place last month. [JAMES BORCHUCK   |   Times]
Michael Johnson, left, participates in OTAs at One Buc Place last month. [JAMES BORCHUCK | Times]
Published July 20, 2014

The problem with all these wonderful new toys, of course, is that some assembly is required. In the end, they all have to work.

The new Mike Evans action figure? It has to function. The old Josh McCown model? It cannot break. The new Anthony Collins plaything? It has to be built to last.

It is the same with Alterraun Verner, and with Evan Dietrich-Smith, and with Clinton McDonald. With Austin Seferian-Jenkins, and with Mike Jenkins, and with Brandon Myers. When a team makes so many moves in one offseason, it is hard to expect all of them to work out.

As the Bucs prepare to report to training camp Thursday, however, there is no doubt which position is the most important.

It needs to be with Michael Johnson, meat-eater.

He needs to leave a mark fast.

It has been an eternity since the Bucs had a defensive end who could make quarterbacks nervous. They are a special breed, these guys, players the entire stadium knows are about to blow by a helpless offensive tackle on their way to the quarterback's lunch. And the next play, they're going to do it again.

Alas, it has not been that way with the Bucs for a while. Most years, they start this guy or that one, and he jogs out for the game introductions, and you promptly forget about him for the next three hours. Oh, every now and then the other team's passer might trip over him, but you couldn't count on it. On most game days, the Bucs' defensive end has been just another guy.

Johnson needs to change all that. More than any other newcomer on the roster, he has to be a difference maker. Otherwise, a difference will not be made.

Fierce. That's what the Bucs need Johnson to be. Relentless. Nasty. Intimidating. Fast. Strong. Fiery. All those adjectives that haven't been used around here since Simeon Rice left town after the 2006 season.

Oh, it is a lot to ask of Johnson, who had all of 3 1/2 sacks last season with the Bengals (including 1 1/2 in his last 12 games). Yes, Johnson had 11 1/2 sacks in 2012, which left him as one of the most coveted free agent pass rushers this year. But it's ambitious to expect a player to jump from three to double digits. At this point, it is fair to say that Johnson has to prove that 2013 was the fluke, not 2012. He has to prove that he's a lot closer to Simeon Rice than he is to, say, Stylez White.

These days, a defense cannot prosper without significant heat from the edge. Think of it like this: The Bucs will play against Drew Brees and Cam Newton and Matt Ryan in the NFC South. Outside it, there are games against Aaron Rodgers and Ben Roethisberger and Joe Flacco and Sam Bradford and Robert Griffin III and Andy Dalton and Matt Stafford and Jay Cutler and Johnny Manziel and Teddy Bridgewater and Blake Bortles.

In other words, that's a lot of plays spent with the QB dropping back, and it's a lot of chances for the defensive end to give chase. If the Bucs are going to be successful, Johnson is going to have to win his share of those matchups.

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Does he have a chance? Sure he does. For one thing, Johnson will be lining up next to Gerald McCoy, who has become one of the finest defensive tackles in the NFL. Together, those two have the skills to be a reasonable facsimile of what Warren Sapp and Rice were for the old Bucs, a daunting 1-2 punch. For another, the Bengals — Johnson's team a year ago — will tell you that Johnson's 33 pressures suggest a higher sack total was in order.

But can Johnson get to double digits?

We'll see.

Around here, double-digit sacks are the holy grail for an outside pass rusher. In their history, the Bucs have had only 11 such seasons. Rice had five of those. Hall of Famer Lee Roy Selmon had four. Of all the defensive ends who have lined up for the Bucs, of all the high draft choices spent on edge rushers, Rice and Selmon are the only two who have as many as 35 career sacks.

So many times the Bucs have swung and missed in the direction of a pass-rusher. So many players have come in attempting to fill the void and left as another empty promise. Eric Curry. Gaines Adams. Ron Holmes. Regan Upshaw. Booker Reese. Keith McCants. Da'Quan Bowers.

You know. The invisibles.

On the other hand, the best Bucs seasons have always been fueled by the defense, and the best defenses have been fueled by the pass rush. There is no feeling quite like a rush that cannot be slowed. It cripples opposing offenses. It leaves them helpless.

Remember that worse-to-first season of the Bucs in 1979? Selmon had 11 sacks that year. Remember when the Bucs finally made the playoffs in 1997? Sapp had 10 1/2 and Chidi Ahanotu had 10. Remember the NFC title-game appearance of 1999? Sapp had 12 1/2. Remember the Super Bowl season of 2002? Rice had 15 1/2.

In other words, a defense standing up starts with the quarterback on the ground.

As of now, that starts with Johnson. The Bucs paid him to be in charge of the heat.

If the Bucs are really in a rush to be better, it will start with him.