TAMPA — The Bucs had their best performance in years rushing the passer Sunday against the Bills, flattening rookie EJ Manuel seven times. In doing so, they also knocked down a big barrier.
In their 27-6 victory, the Bucs surpassed the 30-sack milestone in a season for the first time since 2007, when they had 33.
But there certainly is room for the pass rush to grow. Of their 31 sacks, which is tied for 18th in the league this season going into Thursday, 15 have come in only three games. What's more, 14 of those sacks have come from positions other than the defensive line.
In fact, Tampa Bay's second-leading sack master is do-it-all linebacker Lavonte David with six.
The lack of pressure off the edge has prompted defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan to call an array of line stunts and blitzes, with mixed results. While the sacks are up, the Bucs also have yielded 24 touchdown passes.
"We're getting better," coach Greg Schiano said. "I don't know if we'll ever want to be totally just a four-man rush. Even when you have a great four-man rush, there's a really nice element if you can bring some real pressure, some extra guys. But that even gets better when your four-man rush is kicking tail.
"I think we're getting better at our four-man rush. I think we're starting to understand concepts better, techniques better. That's one of the things. Sometimes in pro football, people think, 'Well, that's who you got.' No, we can get better. That's why we go out and practice every day."
What's the reason for the uptick in sacks this season? For starters, the Bucs are better in the secondary. Tampa Bay leads the league with 21 interceptions. Better coverage gives defensive linemen, linebackers and defensive backs another heartbeat or two to disrupt the quarterback.
"There's matchups," Schiano said. "Some weeks there are more favorable matchups for our best guys. And then maybe for our lesser guys, where some weeks they just get negated, and on other weeks they have a chance to have an advantage.
"When you cover well on Sunday, which I've said many times, they go hand in hand. If you can make the quarterback hold it a half click more, it changes everything. You get him off the spot. A lot of times quarterbacks sack themselves if you get them off the spot, they'll move into the rush."
How vital has disrupting the passer been to the Bucs' success? In the three games in which they failed to register a sack this season, the Bucs are 0-3 and have been outscored 85-53.
Outside of defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, the team leader in sacks with seven, the defensive lineman with the most sacks is end Adrian Clayborn with four. Fellow starters Akeem Spence and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim have one each.
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"The good thing is that the pressure — the sacks and the pressures — it wasn't just one or two guys, it was spread out among the group; that's what you look for," Schiano said.
"Sacks, hurries and hits, they're different levels but they affect maybe ball delivery before they want, maybe ball delivery at a different angle, which leads to an interception. Because of the number of interceptions we've had in the secondary, I think it all goes hand in hand with the pass rush."
Because the Bucs have not had many sizeable leads — seven games have been decided by a touchdown or less — the premier rush opportunities haven't always been there. Last week against the Bills was the exception.
"Last week we got ahead, so you're going to get more pass attempts and our guys are in tune to that," Sheridan said. "So it's a little bit of a disadvantage for the offense because our guys are pinning their ears back."
That's not likely going to be the case Sunday against the 49ers, who use a massive offensive line to run downhill with Frank Gore. Quarterback Colin Kaepernick is not only elusive, but when he escapes from the pocket, he can change the scoreboard with his rushing ability.
"I think we are improving," Schiano said. "Now, this (49ers) offensive line and this quarterback and the receivers, that'll make it harder to rush the passer. It's all relative."