Despite the fact that Tampa Bay spent two high draft picks on defensive ends in the 2011 NFL Draft, the Bucs have big expectations for Michael Bennett along the defensive line this year. Bennett has spent time working out with Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn in San Diego this offseason.
Although the Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted two defensive ends in the first two rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft, the team does not believe that the cupboard was necessarily bare at the defensive end position. Both head coach Raheem Morris and general manager Mark Dominik singled out Michael Bennett in press conferences during the draft along with Gerald McCoy and Brian Price when talking about the team’s building blocks that are already in place to join newcomers Adrian Clayborn and Da`Quan Bowers heading into the 2011 campaign.
Bennett, who wound up starting the last couple of games at right defensive end over veteran Stylez G. White, finished his second NFL season with 21 tackles, four tackles for loss and one sack after notching five tackles and a sack during his rookie season in 2009. While Clayborn and Bowers are slated to start at some point in time at right end and left end, respectively, the Bucs are counting on the athletic Bennett to provide some key snaps in pass rushing situations all across the defensive line.
“This year the Bucs have talked to me about playing in a lot of different places so I don’t want to get too big while I’m training. I’m weighing the same as last year – about 268 or 270,” Bennett said. “They are going to move me around. I’ll be playing left end, right end and even some nose tackle in certain defenses. They’ll put me inside on some plays.”
Tampa Bay likes Bennett’s versatility and the 6-foot-4, 270-pound lineman will play a role similar to that of former Bucs utility players Ellis Wyms and Tyoka Jackson and backup virtually every position. Before the NFL lockout began in March, Bennett spoke with new defensive line coaches Keith Millard, who will be responsible for the pass rush, and Grady Stretz, who will be responsible for teaching run-stopping techniques.
“I talked to them and they were pretty cool,” Bennett said. “We talked about how we’ll be playing defensive line this year as opposed to last year. It’s going to be a lot different along the defensive front this year. It’s going from more of a read-and-react style to penetration. Coach Millard was talking about his time in Oakland and how he had those guys getting upfield.”
Millard, a former Pro Bowl defensive tackle with the Minnesota Vikings, coached Bucs legend Warren Sapp with the Raiders and received Sapp’s endorsement when he was interviewing with Tampa Bay. After spending two years under defensive line coach Todd Wash, whose philosophy for the defensive line was to essentially fill gaps at the line of scrimmage rather than penetrate, Millard and Stretz will be getting the defensive line back to the penetrating style of play that Rod Marinelli, Sapp’s former coach in Tampa Bay, used to teach. This new style should benefit the Bucs’ quicker, athletic players like Bennett.
“We are now working with Coach Millard and I think working with Coach Millard will be good because he’s had results with a lot of different players and helped their careers,” Bennett said. “He understands the pass rush and how to bring out the best in each player. I can’t wait to get started.”
But while Bennett and his teammates anxiously await the end of the NFL lockout, he has been training in his home state of Texas and also made it out to California recently to work out with McCoy and some his Bucs defensive line teammates.
“I’ve been training in Houston and also out in San Diego with some of the guys that have been working out there,” Bennett said. “Gerald, Clayborn, myself and Kyle Moore were training together. I met Clayborn out in San Diego, and he is a hard worker and he’s pretty strong. He’s pretty good. Learning about your teammates is important and that’s what this trip was about. He’s pretty athletic from what I could tell.”
Even though it likely meant he would no longer have the chance to be a starter, Bennett said he was unfazed by the team’s decision to draft Clayborn and Bowers in the first two rounds of the draft back in April because he knows he will still be playing a lot of snaps on Sundays.
“What’s my reaction to it? I think it was a good idea because we need more young defensive linemen,” Bennett said. “It was good news. We’re trying to change the whole mindset of the Bucs defensive line. We have a whole bunch of new guys learning a new system up front under Raheem this year. It’s going to be a different kind of defense. The more competition the better, especially when guys know that they could lose their job.”
While training in San Diego with McCoy, Bennett said he noticed a difference in the Bucs’ first-round pick from a year ago with how driven he is and how he has attacked this offseason.
“Yeah, I’ve seen a big change in Gerald,” Bennett said. “You can sense he wants to change. He doesn’t want to be a good defensive lineman. He wants to be a great defensive lineman. When you have guys leading like that – if you don’t follow, you better get out of the way. It’s good that he wants to be a leader. He’s working hard and you see it in his body. You can see it in his explosion. You can see it in his mindset.”
Both Bennett and McCoy showed big improvement last year towards the end of the season with each notching their first sack of the season against San Francisco in Tampa Bay’s 21-0 shutout win. The Buccaneers began last year allowing an average of 23.75 points per game over the first eight games of 2010. But the defense improved and stiffened during the final eight games, allowing an average of just 16 points per contest. The team surrendered over 20 points in five of those games, and over 30 points in three contests.
Down the stretch, Tampa Bay allowed opponents to score more than 20 points only twice – both of which were losses at home (28-24 to Atlanta, 23-20 to Detroit). The Bucs did not allow more than 28 points in any of the team’s final eight games and beat two playoff teams in Seattle and New Orleans to end the season on a high note.
“We started hitting our stride at the end because we started improving and playing together,” Bennett said. “That’s what Coach Morris wants us to do. Along the defensive line you need to have everyone doing their jobs – not just one person. When one person is doing their job you’re giving up the run and not getting to the quarterback. But when we have everyone on the D-line doing their jobs we can be unstoppable. We are young group that is growing together.”
The Bucs expect Bennett to be a big part of the team's plans along the defensive line in 2011.
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