Before starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy went down with an ankle injury during the first quarter of Tampa Bay’s humbling 48-3 loss in San Francisco, the Buccaneers’ young front line appeared to be consistently striding in the right direction.
The unit had helped produce 10 total sacks over the season’s first four weeks, including back-to-back games of four quarterback takedowns against Atlanta and Indianapolis in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively. Tampa Bay also limited both aforementioned teams to 92 combined rushing yards and no touchdowns.
But since last year’s first-round pick from Oklahoma has been in street clothes, the Bucs’ all-around presence in the offensive backfield has slowed considerably. Tampa Bay failed to get to San Francisco’s Alex Smith, followed it up by getting shut out of that stat department during Week 6’s home win against Drew Brees and New Orleans, and then produced two sacks of Chicago’s Jay Culter in London.
The Bucs have fallen into a tie with Indianapolis for the second fewest sacks in the league, with 12. Only Kansas City (nine) has been less productive. Tampa Bay is on pace for about 27 sacks this year, one more than last year’s unit.
Although an official announcement of McCoy’s availability for next Sunday’s rematch in New Orleans has yet to be made, he said Tuesday that his ankle has improved and he will be practicing this week in preparation for the game.
“I'm feeling good. I’m going to go out and practice today. With my ankle injury I’ll just be day-to-day. I’m going to go out, be aggressive and we’ll see what happens.”
Also hopeful for the return of No. 93 in the middle is head coach Raheem Morris. The Bucs have been utilizing a mix of Frank Okam, Roy Miller and rookie DE Da’Quan Bowers to fill the void, but McCoy brings something unique to the table that the defense has been missing lately, Morris said.
“He’s different. He’s our get-off guy. He’s kind of our engine, a little bit. [Defensive end Brian] Price and him in there are tough to deal with. They create some certain disruption for us that we don’t have with other players. They’re different guys. They play hard, they play fast, they play physical.”
“With some of the other guys, like big Frank [Okam], we get a different look,” Morris continued. “We get a bigger, more physical human. With McCoy, we get a chance to change the line of scrimmage and change where the ball’s handed off and some of the position points from the quarterback. We get a little bit more of a pass rush. It will be nice to have him back as well.”
Leading up to his injury, McCoy had recorded one sack and 11 total tackles through four-plus games. Though the big numbers weren’t there to back it up, McCoy was earning weekly praise from a coaching staff thinking those stats weren’t far off because of his increased disruptiveness and penetration. Whether or not it’s a definitive and direct correlation, the Bucs piled up 10 sacks with McCoy and two without him.
Rookie defensive end Adrian Clayborn leads the team in sacks this season with three. He said on Tuesday that getting McCoy back in the mix will provide an all-around boost to a defense that currently ranks in the lower third of the league in total yardage (29th – 391.1 per game), pass yardage (26th – 267.7) and run yardage (23rd – 123.4).
“We’ll be adding another great player that we’ve been missing the past couple weeks,” Clayborn said. “We definitely need him in the pass rush game and he’s great against the run. It’s going to be great to have him back to have another pass rusher there to get to the quarterback.”
There may not be a better time to be getting McCoy back in his three-technique position on the line than this Sunday in New Orleans. Sole or partial possession of first place in the NFC South will be on the line as the Saints (5-3) come in with a half-game edge on Tampa Bay and Atlanta, both 4-3. The Falcons travel to Indianapolis for a 1 p.m. game against the Colts.
McCoy was sitting out his first full game during the Bucs’ 26-20 Week 6 beating of New Orleans and said he hopes to help in the defense’s primary objective of containing Brees.
“It’s never easy to beat the Saints because they have No. 9, bottom line. If we can get him uncomfortable, which is rare to see, it’ll make it a lot easier for us to win. We’ve got to do our best to keep him uncomfortable and to get him off his spot and make him make some hard throws. They get paid, too, so they’re going to make some plays, but we’ve just got to make more.”
The Bucs didn’t sack Brees three weeks ago and only posted one official quarterback hit as the five-time Pro Bowler went on to go 29 of 45 passing for 383 yards and set an NFL record by surpassing 350 yards for the fourth straight game. What stat the Tampa Bay defense did post, though, were three interceptions that helped lead to another more important one – a W in the standings.
“Stats are for losers. I’ll leave it at that.” McCoy said while recounting what he saw from Round One of the two-game New Orleans series. “That’s how coach is and that’s how we attack the game. The only number that counts to us is the number of W’s. That’s all we’re worried about.”
While that expression, along with the mindset that comes along with it, is practically etched into the walls of One Buccaneer Place, the one statistic that tends to survive in-team debasement is turnover creation.
McCoy and his fellow teammates in the box certainly won’t hate seeing another crooked number in the sack column after Sunday’s game, but he said sufficient pressure that creates another pick-filled day will be what helps most in Tampa Bay getting to 5-3 and back in the NFC South driver’s seat.
“We got the turnovers when it counted,” McCoy said of the Week 6 win. “When we needed big stops we got them. Drew Brees, he got his numbers. All that matters is that you get the stops when you need them and we did that. We were fortunate enough to slow down their run and make them pass, but we’ve got to do a better job of getting Drew Brees off his spot. We’ve got to get there to keep him uncomfortable and make him make bad throws. When it counted we actually did that. Some guys dropped some balls. It’s rare to see him throw bad passes but we were able to make him [do that]. We’re just going to try and duplicate that and go above and beyond.”