Third-year pro Michael Bennett has been playing so well in the preseason that he has beaten rookie Da'Quan Bowers for the starting job at left defensive end. Both Bennett, who has 1.5 of Tampa Bay's 13 preseason sacks, and Bowers will receive a significant amount of playing time in 2011.
When Tampa Bay drafted defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers in the first and second rounds of the 2011 NFL Draft, respectively, the Buccaneers had envisioned selecting the team’s starting right and left defensive end. However, third-year veteran defensive end Michael Bennett, who was signed to a one-year, $1.2 million contract during training camp as a restricted free agent, had other ideas.
Since the day he stepped out on to the practice field at One Buccaneer Place and blew past right tackle Jeremy Trueblood to drop running back Earnest Graham for a loss in the backfield, Bennett has played like a man with his hair on fire. The Texas A&M product has been virtually unblockable in practice and in the preseason games where he has started at right end and recorded six tackles, two tackles for loss and 1.5 sacks and was involved in a safety in Kansas City.
“I’ve just been trying to go relentless every play,” Bennett said. “Trying to push myself to that level where you can just continuously go hard. Coach [Keith] Millard talks about it all the time. You’ve got to keep going and keep going even when they think you are stopping you got to keep going again. Every day it is just relentless practicing and we just go work on our hands every day. It is actually paying off for the whole D-line. Even Da’Quan Bowers, this week he stepped up big time and George Johnson and Gerald McCoy – everybody is just starting to become better players.”
Bennett’s performance is just one of the bright spots for the Bucs’ defensive line this preseason, which has recorded 9.5 of the team’s 13 sacks. Johnson, a third-string defensive end, leads the team with three sacks, while Moore and Tim Crowder each have two and Bowers recorded his first NFL sack in last week’s 17-13 comeback win over Miami.
“It is a trickledown effect,” Bennett said. “[Head coach] Raheem [Morris] and Keith, they want us to do it and they are like that is what we want and if you all don’t do it we are going to get someone else that can do it. You can see that if I mess up you can see Bowers can go in there and step in and do what he goes to do. But if Bowers messes up you can see Kyle Moore go in there and do what he can do.”
Bennett said the team’s drafting of Bowers and Clayborn fired him up this offseason. He saw Tampa Bay’s decision to focus on drafting two defensive ends with its first two picks as a challenge.
“Yes it is,” Bennett said. “It is a challenge. Sometimes when you’re back against the wall that is when you play your best. It is a good thing. It is always good to have somebody behind you that you know and not so much as a battle thing because most defensive players is a collective group thing. That feels good that we have a group of guys that go in there and everybody is held to the same standard and that are the kind of standards that we have this year.”
So far, Bennett, who has received a lot of offseason hype and recognition from both Morris and general manager Mark Dominik, owes a lot of his development from having been in the NFL for two seasons, in which he has recorded two career sacks, and to Millard, Tampa Bay’s new pass rush coach.
“It is always your third year when you come in and try to grind as hard as you can and push it,” Bennett said. “Coach Millard, he is such a great coach. He is showing me different things that he saw in me and he is making me work on different techniques.
“He sees things that we don’t see in ourselves. He just tries to get the best out of everybody. He has definitely improved my hands and my get off. It’s my whole approach to the game of football really this year. He has the attitude where we can be the best, and we need to be at our best every day.”
Bennett was added to the Bucs roster two years ago after Seattle waived the undrafted free agent and tried to place him on its practice squad. Tampa Bay used him as a Tyoka Jackson-Ellis Wyms-type player that could play defensive end as well as inside at the three-technique defensive tackle spot. Bennett was used as a defensive tackle by the Seahawks.
“When I first came in it was like a different transition,” Bennett said. “I was playing three technique, and then I came to Tampa. It is hot. It is hotter than Seattle down here, but it was a big change learning a new defense and getting to know these different guys and different coaches and just knowing what they want and expect from me. Every coach on every team expects something different from you. One coach might like this much and then another one might like this much, but one thing that Raheem does – he has a certain type of swagger about himself [and] it makes you want to have that same swagger. No matter what nobody says about you or anybody feels about you that you can play. When he gives you that swagger it is like I’ve got to believe in myself too because if he believes in you then you got to believe in you.
“The first day Keith was telling me, ‘I just want you to play one position. I know that you got a lot of different talents [and] you can do a lot of different things, but right now I just want you to focus on the defensive end spot [and] that is what we need you to do.’ Every day we watch film all day on different pass rushes and he just keeps going on and on and was at my neck constantly.”
At the end of the 2010 season, Bennett had unseated Stylez G. White as the team’s starting right defensive end. But Millard wants to use the combination of speed and power of the 6-foot-4, 274-pounder at left end where he has more responsibility as a run stuffer as well as a pass rusher.
“This is still the same thing,” Bennett said. “It just depends on what side the offense is running to, but mostly they run to the left side [at me]. I play a lot of the run and Adrian does a lot of the pass rushing. It probably will switch it up as it goes team by team.”
Bennett takes pride in being a good run stuffer, evidenced by knifing through the offensive line and dropping Miami running back Reggie Bush for a loss in Saturday night’s victory at Raymond James Stadium.
“Oh yes, you’ve got to,” Bennett said. “That is just something that is like the main focus of playing defense. I know pass rushing is a big thing, but when you are mano-a-mano on the run that is like man-on-man, so it just feels good if you can beat him and makes you feel bad when you lose.
“You’ve got to stop the run. Even last year they talked about the sacks and everything, but the big reason for not getting sacks has a big deal to do with not stopping the run [and] not having as many opportunities. That is our pride. Like when we stop the run on third down it is something we deserve. It is like a treat. We stop that and now it is time for us to go out and hunt. It feels good.”
Through 16 games in 2010, the Bucs produced only 26 sacks, which ranked last in the NFC. Although preseason stats don’t count, the fact that Tampa Bay’s defensive ends alone are averaging three sacks per game is huge according to Bennett.
“The preseason does not mean a lot, but it means a lot to us to see that there is changing in the philosophy of what the Bucs want for the defensive line,” Bennett said. “What they want for defense is something that we have to keep up with. The coaches here, when they set those standards, we’ve got to get to them and it feels good to keep going out there and working on it. We play the Detroit Lions [in Week 1] so hopefully everything we have been working on will look as good as then.”
And Bennett looks good as Tampa Bay’s starting left defensive end.
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