FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Be honest. When you heard a Bucs defensive lineman had played a role in hurting quarterback Tom Brady, you figured it had to be an accident.
Adrian Clayborn's bull-rush of Patriots left tackle Nate Solder during Wednesday's practice produced the kind of pressure the Bucs have only dreamed about over the past five seasons. Brady had a mild left knee sprain and returned to work with a brace Thursday.
Clayborn will get a chance to duplicate that effort in tonight's preseason game, his first action since tearing his right ACL in Week 3 last season at Dallas.
As a rookie in 2011, Clayborn led the Bucs in sacks with 7½. He was working back into shape when a groin injury forced him to miss last week's preseason opener against the Ravens.
"I am eager to get back," Clayborn said. "They've been kind of limiting my reps, so it's hard to get a flow. But hopefully, I can get back into the swing of things soon.
"It always stinks being out of practice. But after having an ACL injury, getting back into it and then having the groin injury kind of (stunk). I'm feeling good now, so I'm just glad to be back."
To say Tampa Bay needs the 6-foot-3, 280-pound Clayborn to ignite their pass rush is an understatement. Only tackle Gerald McCoy, a Pro Bowl pick last season, offers a player that coach Greg Schiano can count on for three downs. The nose tackle job is up for grabs, and the Bucs are trying to squeeze more out of end Da'Quan Bowers, with mixed results.
Schiano played Bowers the entire first half against the Ravens to improve his conditioning, but he produced only two tackles. Last week, the Bucs moved him inside to tackle in pass-rush situations, and Wednesday he was used in practice primarily on third down situations.
"We've got Gerald McCoy. That guy is definitely starting," Schiano said. "If (Clayborn) can come back healthy, then he's definitely starting. After that, it's wide open."
Without much prodding, it's easy to hear Schiano's frustration when discussing Bowers, a second-round pick in 2011.
"Again, everything is being evaluated. We haven't made any decisions," Schiano said. "I told (the media) what I wanted and what I expected. But I'm not going to make it happen if it isn't there. It's got to be there. So we'll see. He's getting an opportunity (tonight). We've got another game next week, so we'll just keep playing."
The Bucs tied for 29th in sacks last season with 27, the fifth consecutive season they failed to reach 30. End Michael Bennett, who led the club with nine, signed with Seattle, paving the way for Bowers to take his spot. Tackle Roy Miller, who signed with the Jaguars, most likely will be replaced by rookie Akeem Spence.
With the moves the Bucs made to improve their secondary — trading for cornerback Darrelle Revis, signing safety Dashon Goldson and drafting cornerback Johnthan Banks in the second round — improving what was the worst pass defense in the NFL a year ago will require pressure on opposing quarterbacks, who owned a 97.2 passer rating a year ago. Getting Clayborn back should help.
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"I think (Clayborn) brings not only his play, but his tenacious attitude," Schiano said. "So it's going to be fun to have him back on the field."
And nobody can complain if he knocks down Brady tonight.
Rick Stroud can be reached at stroud @tampabay.com and heard from 6 to 9 a.m. weekdays on WDAE-620.