The 1-5 Buccaneers rank last in points allowed (204), including the 52 and 48 given up against Atlanta and Baltimore, respectively, and the Tampa 2 defense is now under fire throughout the Bay Area.
The system is predicated on getting a heavy pass rush, most notably from its primary defensive end. The Buccaneers have relied on high-priced free agent acquisition Michael Johnson, and so far the investment has not paid off. The sixth-year pro has tallied just two sacks while applying limited pressure in the passing game.
However, the first-year Buccaneer is not playing at 100 percent health. You won’t hear Johnson making excuses for his play, but a significant reason for his lack of production since coming from Cincinnati can be attributed to injuries.
During Week 1 against Carolina, Johnson rolled his already sprained ankle. Although the injury only sidelined him for a week, Buccaneer coaches know that their primary edge rusher is playing at a disadvantage.
“Well, for us it’s a fact,” said defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier at his press conference on last week. “He’s been playing injured.”
Frazier admits that Johnson isn’t the same player during training camp, but remains confident that with each passing week comes a healthier defensive end. The coaches plan on limiting him through the bye to speed up his recovery process.
“This (bye) week is going to help him tremendously,” Frazier said. “We’re not going to tax him very much this week and we’ll take it slow next week. We need a healthier Michael Johnson. We should get that by having these two weeks. From that second play in the Carolina game … to see him on the ground grimacing from that point on has been an uphill battle to try to get him back healthy. He’s made great progress with the time that we’ve had and the time that he’s missed. But he’s not the player that we had coming out of training camp because of that injury. The time off this week and next week should help him. And he’ll be closer to what we all expect to see when we line up against our next opponent.”
Playing through an ankle ailment similar to Johnson’s can be particularly difficult for defensive ends, Frazier explained. From shifting weight to being flexible, he said Johnson is missing the full speed and burst he’s used to having.
“Without question,” Frazier said. “When you have an ankle injury, to push off and twist and turn like you have to do at the defensive end position, it’s going to impede some of the things that you have to get done. He’s not a guy who wants to be thinking about that injury for what he has to do. He’s going against the best offensive tackles in the National Football League. But to be able to twist and turn, to burst, to get on the outside edge of a tackle; when you have an ankle injury, it’s hard to put that weight where you need to without feeling that sharp pain and having to deal with it.”
During open locker room this bye week, Johnson hasn’t given in to making excuses for his play. And although he has expressed frustration – injuries haven’t been commonplace for the Georgia Tech alumni – he remains confident in the season ahead.
“It’s a high ankle sprain, people have them around the league,” Johnson said. “You see how they handle it and how I’m trying to handle it. I’m just trying to stay upbeat and positive and do my rehab. (I’m trying to) do everything I can to make sure I can contribute on Sundays. That’s where I’m at right now with that.
“Like I said, I’m just trying to stay positive and believe it’s going to get better. If it’s something that just lingers and I have to deal with it, than it is what it is. It’s unfortunate. I missed one game in five years in Cincinnati and probably a handful of practices. This is very frustrating for me. But it’s not the end of the world. I will be better. We will be better. I’m positive and confident on that.”
One player can’t make all of the difference, but in a role as important as defensive end it can certainly affect a lot more than some realize. Look no further than the division rival Carolina Panthers to see evidence of that.
Last season while running the Tampa 2 scheme, the Panthers ranked as the NFL’s second rated defense, finishing first in sacks with 60. Their sack leader was defensive end Greg Hardy, who contributed 15.
Fast forward to 2014, the Panthers are ranked 29th in points allowed per game, 27th in yards surrendered per game, and 17th in sacks. A major reason for the defense’s rapid decline? Greg Hardy.
Hardy was suspended after Week 1, and the correlation between his absence and the Panthers disastrous defensive play is too overwhelming to be overlooked.
Evidence shows that the Tampa 2 is predicated on pass rush. The inevitable gaps in a zone scheme make it imperative for the defensive line to force the quarterback into quick decisions. Whether or not Michael Johnson’s impaired ankle is the defining reason for his performance is yet to be determined. But nevertheless, his performance is a defining reason for the overall defensive struggles of the Buccaneers.
Johnson’s focus is on the remainder of the season – getting healthier as a player and improving as a team. The Buccaneers still have 10 games to prove themselves and Johnson firmly believes that there’s still a lot of success to look forward to.
“That’s what my mind is staying focused on,” he said. “(I’m looking at) the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Zach is entering his 3rd year covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a writer for PewterReport.com. Since 2014, he's handled a large part of the beat reporting responsibilities at PR, attending all media gatherings and publishing and promoting content daily. Zach is a native of Sarasota, FL, and a graduate of the University of Tampa. He has also covered high school football for the Tampa Tribune and the NFL for Pro Player Insiders.
Contact him at: [email protected]
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Not to be negative here, but all I remember during training camp was Johnson couldn’t play because of an injury. So when has he been health since he has been a Bucy?
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I do remember being pissed that the NFL didn’t suspend Hardy before the Bucs game, it seemed arbitrary and unfair. Without Hardy, the Bucs might have pulled off a win.
The Bucs problem is there is no “next man up” fro DE’s. With one starter on injured reserve and the other injured so that he is ineffective, the cupboard is dry and players off the streets don’t know the defense.
Umm…he played in 15 games last season and had 3.5 sacks so please tell me more about his decreased production.
Michael Bennett was best DE bucs have had in years. So what do they do? Let him go to Seattle two years ago for 5 million one year deal. They didn’t think he was worth it. Paid Michael Johnson $$$ and have got zilch so far. Between this and other first and second round bust DE’s lately (Bowers, Claiborne)it’s no wonder we are in the situation we are in. Some dumb moves.
Actual injury or just more excuses from an over-rated and over-paid player?
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