Of all the must-do objectives targeted following the 2010 season, none were as prevalently debated and addressed as the defensive front and its ability to pressure quarterbacks.
With rookie defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers added to the mix and second-year tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price back and healthy, excitement about the unit’s young foundation and what it could do for the team has been spilling forth from coaches since training camp opened in July.
All that potential, though, has yet to translate into hard results.
Tampa Bay enters Week 3’s matchup against NFC South rival Atlanta with only two total sacks, both coming last week at Minnesota. The takedowns also represent the only official quarterback hurries logged by the team, as well, after being unable to disrupt Matthew Stafford of Detroit.
While the numbers may not be piling up – and it’s well known how much Raheem Morris loves his stats – the third-year head coach said Friday that he continues to see solid progression from the defensive front.
“The collapse in the pocket was awesome [in Minnesota], but the ability to pass rush last week was very limited,” Morris said. “We were down 17-0 very quickly [and] you are playing a little bit of a guessing game [and] a little ”
“Had a couple opportunities there on third down and long and a couple of those situations came through screens and whatever that nature may be, but hopefully this week we can get to a more favorable situation for us. … What I saw last week, I am very pleased with the opportunities that they did have.”
If the past two weeks of football is an accurate indicator of opportunities to come, Tampa Bay may its fair share against Atlanta on Sunday afternoon. The Falcons offense enters the game having surrendered the third highest sack total in the league, with nine. Atlanta’s offensive line may get a boost against the Bucs, though, with the possible return of veteran center Todd McClure. McClure has been sidelined with a knee injury and replaced by second-year Joe Hawley.
Regardless of who’s on the ball barking out line assignments this week, starting left end Michael Bennett said he feels confident the Bucs will be able to get to quarterback Matt Ryan this week.
“It’s a big thing for us to get him down. I think we’ll get him down a lot this week coming up and we’ll get our chances to put some pressure on him. We’ve got a good defensive front and we can be really good [against] the passing game, so it’s going to be good to see.”
Through watching Falcons’ game film this past week, Clayborn said he and his fellow linemen have been trying to key in on where Atlanta has been exposed up front.
“We just watched the previous two games with what guys have done to their offensive line to get back there,” he said. “We’re going to try to replicate it, but put our own stuff on it, do our own thing.”
Clayborn, the Bucs’ 2011 first-round pick out of Iowa, started both games at right end and has yet to record anything other than one pass defensed. With 14 games remaining, Morris said there is plenty of time for the rookie to break out onto the scene in a big way.
“He’s very angry,” said Morris, citing the often-made coaching observation of Clayborn. “He plays the game violently. We love the way he played the game. He made a few mistakes last week. I look forward to him getting better this week. He’s one of those guys that is going to get better and better throughout the process. He doesn’t really have a down side about him. He just gets more angry and angry every day he goes out to practice and every day he goes to the game. His ceiling is way up there and I look forward to having him have a big time break out season.”
What will also be affected by the front four’s ability to penetrate and manipulate the Atlanta offensive line is the effectiveness of another young Buc lining up just behind them. Rookie middle linebacker Mason Foster racked up his first NFL sack in the second quarter last week in Minnesota and led the team in total tackles with 10. Morris said he hopes to see his young, aggressive mike backer shooting gaps on blitz calls Sunday afternoon.
“He is just so powerful and strong,” Morris said of Foster. “He has the ability to really collapse the pocket, so to speak, with anybody who blocks him; whether it be a lineman or whether it be a back. He creates a nice little mismatch for us. He’s sneaky heavy, he’s sneaky big and he has the ability to show that in those blitzing situations. I look forward to getting him [and] getting out there with him a little bit.”
Now with two regular season contests under his belt, Foster said he’s beginning to see and pick up on play development more quickly, allowing him to make better and faster decisions on the fly.
“Definitely as you go along you start to learn where you can take your shots and know what play to look for and when to shoot your gap,” he said. “I'm getting more comfortable with doing that and getting more familiar with what offenses are running. It feels good.”
New for Foster this Sunday will be the added responsibility of play calling due to Quincy Black’s doubtful status while recovering from a high ankle sprain.
“Mason will be calling the plays every down if he is the full-time starter at mike,” Morris said while addressing Black’s status. “If he’s out there on nickel and he’s out there on base, he will have the green dot on his helmet. So you guys have a pretty good indicator on what’s going on in the pregame.”