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Tampa Bay head coach Jon Gruden went on record several times last season stating that the defense's pass rush simply wasn't good enough.
The Bucs notched 25 sacks in 2006, so their 33 quarterback takedowns in 2007 certainly was an improvement. However, the bar has been set much higher after watching the New York Giants record a whopping 53 sacks en route to winning the Super Bowl last season.
Tampa Bay's defensive pass rush was lacking and at times non-existent last season, which allowed the Bucs' No. 2-ranked defense to be picked apart too often and is cause for concern heading into the 2008 campaign.
Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's group hasn't been too successful in terms of executing blitzes, either, so the team will be hard pressed to defend its NFC South division title if the Bucs defensive line can't produce more consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
The fact that Tampa Bay's pass defense ranked No. 1 overall in the NFL last year is amazing given the team's 33 total sacks, which ranked 16th in the league. It's also a real credit to Kiffin and defensive backs coach Raheem Morris.
However, Kiffin and Morris have their defensive players, particularly the secondary, focused on creating more turnovers this year.
The Bucs notched 16 interceptions last season, and 13 of those came courtesy of Tampa Bay's defensive backs.
To put that number in perspective, the Buccaneers recorded 31 interceptions in 2002, which was the year Tampa Bay won Super Bowl XXXVII, and the Bucs know it will take creating more turnovers to get back to the Super Bowl, which will be played in Tampa this season.
"We're really focused on getting more turnovers this year," said Bucs cornerback Phillip Buchanon. "Whether that's fumbles or interceptions, we need a lot more of both. We need to make more impact plays, more game-changing plays, and that's what we're focused on right now."
But Tampa Bay's secondary can only do so much. Turnovers often times are forced by pressure on the quarterback, which means the Bucs have to get more of it from their defensive line.
Tampa Bay has made several moves along its defensive line this offseason, releasing aging defensive ends Kevin Carter and Greg Spires and signing defensive linemen Jimmy Wilkerson and Marquies Douglas. Carter was re-signed several weeks later.
But Tampa Bay isn't likely to get a great pass rush from Wilkerson or Douglas. After all, Wilkerson has just one sack in five seasons and Douglas, 31, has notched 19 career sacks while playing with New Orleans, Baltimore, San Francisco and now Tampa Bay.
Carter has recorded 100 career sacks, but only three of those were notched in his Buccaneer debut last year. He could also be hard pressed to improve on that sack total this season as Carter will turn 35 in September and isn't even guaranteed a 53-man roster spot.
The fourth overall pick of the 2007 NFL Draft, DE Gaines Adams, didn't record his first sack until the sixth game of the season, but he led all rookies in sacks and finished 2007 with seven quarterback takedowns, one of which he notched in Tampa Bay's playoff loss to the New York Giants.
But one has to wonder how Adams will fare in 2008. He's visibly added more muscle to his frame, but will that translate into more success or is Adams destined for the type of sophomore slump former Bucs first-round draft picks have suffered, like wide receiver Michael Clayton, running back Cadillac Williams and guard Davin Joseph?
Tampa Bay simply can't afford to have Adams suffer through a sophomore slump, a reality that becomes even clearer when taking a closer look at the Bucs' defensive linemen.
Greg White, a former Arena Football League player, took the Bucs by storm when he notched a team-leading eight sacks and seven forced fumbles last year. But will White, who turns 29 this year, build on that impressive effort or will he prove to be a one-year wonder? It might be a lot to ask of White to come in and have that type of production again in 2008.
Perhaps one of Tampa Bay's most disappointing players last year was DE Patrick Chukwurah, who was supposed to provide a pass rush while making the transition from linebacker to defensive end. But Chukwurah couldn't stay healthy and notched just one sack in 10 games with the Bucs. At this point Chukwurah is fighting to earn a roster spot as well as playing time in defensive line coach Larry Coyer's rotation alone the defensive line.
One player to keep an eye on this offseason is third-year player Charles Bennett, who is listed at 6-foot-3, 254 pounds, but has visibly bulked up since going on injured reserve last year. While the Bucs want to see what Bennett can do this year, the former seventh-round pick appears to be on the outside looking in at this point.
Tampa Bay is set at the nose tackle position with two former first-round draft picks, Chris Hovan and Ryan Sims, competing for a starting job.
By playing the nose tackle position Hovan hasn't exactly been in a position to sack the quarterback on a regular basis. He's notched just 1.5 sacks in three seasons with the Bucs, and Sims has just six career sacks, 1.5 of which came in his Buccaneer debut in 2007.
The Bucs have had a difficult time finding the next Warren Sapp, but Jovan Haye did a good job at the under tackle position for the team last year. He notched six sacks and led the linemen with 97 tackles while starting all 16 regular season games.
Tampa Bay has been attempting to negotiate a long-term contract extension for Haye since last October, but to no avail. However, Haye, who is a restricted free agent, is expected to sign his one-year tender offer from the Bucs before the deadline of April 18.
As of right now, Bucs DT Greg Peterson, who entered the league as a 2007 fifth-round draft pick, will compete with Haye and for a roster spot. He flashed at times early in his rookie debut, but saw his playing time limited after the first quarter of the season. Peterson finished the year with 1.5 sacks in 10 games.
Tampa Bay still is interested in signing former Atlanta DT Rod Coleman, who has 58.5 career sacks and could provide the Bucs with a more consistent pass rush as a three technique. But Coleman, 31, is working on getting 100 percent healthy from a knee injury he sustained last year first. The Bucs could wait until after the draft to decide on what they want to do regarding Coleman.
Although the Bucs have been busy making moves along their defensive line, they really haven't done much in the way of improving their pass rush this offseason.
Outside of Carter, who has 100 career sacks, Bucs cornerback Ronde Barber is actually Tampa Bay's leading sacks leader with 21 with Hovan right behind him with 20.5. That's not a good thing for a team that prides itself for getting after the quarterback.
If you don't count Carter, the rest of Tampa Bay's defensive line has accounted for just 71 career sacks. That's just 18 more than the Giants' sack total of 53 from last season alone.
And even if you do include Carter, the Buccaneers defensive linemen have just 171 career sacks.
To put that number in scary perspective, Giants defensive ends Michael Strahan and Osi Umenyiora alone have combined for 183 sacks throughout their careers, which is 12 more than Tampa Bay's entire defensive line has combined.
It is, however, important to note that Tampa Bay's defensive line is fairly young. Adams, White and Peterson are entering just their second years in the NFL and Bennett is going into his third season.
If Tampa Bay doesn't execute a trade for Allen, the Bucs likely will still have a few collegiate pass-rushing defensive ends to choose from in the draft, including Clemson's Phillip Merling, Auburn's Quentin Groves, Virginia Tech's Chris Ellis, USC's Lawrence Jackson and Eastern Michigan's Jason Jones, among others.
The draft also includes several talented defensive tackles, including Notre Dame DT Trevor Laws and Maryland DT Dre' Moore, although this draft has more run-stuffing defensive tackles than it does pass rushers.
If the Bucs do not trade for Allen or draft a versatile pass rusher this month they will be banking on their current stable of players to get after the quarterback more than the team did in 2007. If that turns out to be the case it will indeed be a risky proposition for the Buccaneers.
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