The 0-3 Tampa Bay Buccaneers need to clean up play on both sides of the football in a hurry if they're going to salvage their 2009 regular season.
While the Bucs offense produced just 86 yards in a 24-0 loss to the New York Giants last Sunday, the team's defense has struggled the most.
Tampa Bay's defense is allowing opposing offenses to average 432 yards per game, which has the team ranked second-to-last (31st) in the NFL in that particular category.
This is something the Bucs simply aren't used to after watching former defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin lead the team to a top 10 defense in 11 of his 13 seasons in Tampa Bay.
Like the fans, new Bucs defensive coordinator Jim Bates is scratching his head over his unit's woes through the first three games of the season, especially in the pass-rushing department, where Tampa Bay has notched just three sacks, including two from the defensive line.
"We just haven't had any sustained pressure over a period of time," said Bates. "I believe we've had some good individual rushes, but it's not enough to get the pressure we need.
"We're still searching. It's a problem area, and last week in practice we had our best one-on-one pass rush period all year. There's a lot of work to be done still."
Bucs head coach Raheem Morris said sustaining a better pass rush in games starts with doing it in practice on a consistent basis.
"We have to give more pressure and these guys have to do it," said Morris. "The first thing starts today in practice. We had great effort [Wednesday]. I don't know what that is going to lead to on Sunday. I'm hoping the results are positive.
Bucs defensive end Jimmy Wilkerson and rookie defensive tackle Roy Miller are the only two defensive linemen to record a sack this season.
With Tampa Bay currently on pace to record a franchise-low 16 sacks in 2009, Bates has dialed up some blitzes, particularly for linebacker Geno Hayes and cornerback Ronde Barber, who have five QB hurries and one sack, respectively.
Bates said he'll continue to call blitzes if he needs to, but acknowledged the danger that comes with that type of aggressive playcalling.
"It's something that as a signal caller as far as finding out and developing our players more and more, we're trying to figure out," said Bates. "Can we rush with four? Do we need to bring more? Can you take care of coverage if you do bring more people? That's been the hardest thing. We haven't developed an identity as to what we are doing as far as consistency is concerned. We just have to do a better job, including myself, of creating the pressure and getting after the quarterback."
Tampa Bay's pass rush has struggled dating back to the 2008 season, when the team recorded just 29 sacks through 16 regular season games.
Despite having more salary cap room than any other team to start free agency in February, the Bucs did little in the way of adding pass rushers to their roster with the exception of drafting Miller and DE Kyle Moore, and re-signing DT Ryan Sims.
Morris and general manager Mark Dominik believed Bates' system would immediately help improve the team's poor pass rush. It had, after all, been successful in Miami and Green Bay. In fact, the Dolphins averaged 42 sacks per season during Bates' five-year stint in Miami.
But the lack of pass rush has been devastating to Tampa Bay's defense, which calls on its cornerbacks to play man-to-man coverage. That type of coverage isn't as effective when the defensive line isn't pressuring the quarterback.
Opposing offenses have completed 62.4 percent of their passes for 754 yards and tossed seven touchdowns and just one pick while converting nearly 45 percent of their third down attempts vs. the Bucs. Signal callers Tony Romo, Trent Edwards and Eli Manning combined for 85 pass attempts against Tampa Bay, but the Bucs notched just three sacks.
"We've obviously got to get more sacks. We have to," said Sims. "Our corners are out there in man-to-man coverage, and that would help them out a lot. We definitely have to get more pressure on the quarterback, but I think we've made some strides. We're still young and we're still learning. There's plenty of room to improve, but I think we are heading in the right direction."
Not only are they not recording sacks, the Bucs defense isn't getting turnovers, either. Tampa Bay has just one interception and one fumble recovery through three games, both notched by safety Sabby Piscitelli. Increased pressure can lead to more turnover opportunities for Bates' defense, which had 103 interceptions (21 avg. per year) in Miami.
"We have to close those windows so the quarterback has to make the tough throws," said Wilkerson. "With tough throws comes interceptions, incompletions and sacks if he's forced to hold onto the ball."
The Bucs' secondary has had its problems, allowing too many deep completions that have led to touchdowns, particularly in the team's first two losses to Dallas and Buffalo, respectively. While the lack of pass rush played a role in some of those big plays, the team's secondary is holding itself accountable.
“We still have an opportunity to make plays,” said Bucs cornerback Aqib Talib. “It is not like we guarding guys and they are running circles and stuff. A couple of plays where the quarterback may get to scramble, for the most part [Giants wide receiver] Steve Smith caught a good ball on the sideline. I had an opportunity to get an interception on the one third down. We knew Steve Smith was going to run options. They had the opportunity to make a play that didn’t have anything to do with the pass rush. That’s on us. We can’t speak on that. We have to make our plays just like they have to make theirs.”
Tampa Bay's defensive linemen have combined for 25 QB hurries through three games, but the players know it simply hasn't been good enough.
"You've seen where one guy gets in free, but what we have to do is get it to where two or three guys get in free and get the quarterback down to the ground," said Sims.
Despite their lack of success in terms of getting after the quarterback, the Bucs defensive linemen claim they're still confident in their ability to thrive in Bates' scheme.
"It's still good," Wilkerson said of the D-line's confidence. "We just can't let it get us frustrated. Even though we have two sacks from the defensive line right now, sometimes they come in bunches. You can get a few in one game and then go a few without a sack. We just can't let it get us frustrated."
Bucs defensive end Gaines Adams has fallen under heavy criticism due to the fact that he remains sackless on the season and has just five QB hurries on the year.
The fourth overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft has 12.5 career sacks, but Adams has registered only 2.5 quarterback takedowns in Tampa Bay's last 10 regular season games dating back to 2008.
Adams, who has been critical of himself, is attempting to use the mental toughness Morris urges his players to possess in order to stay focused on Tampa Bay's defensive and team goals.
"We're a unit and we stick together. That's what it all boils down to," said Adams. "We're not pointing the finger at any individual. We're all human beings and we're all men. This is football. You have to take the criticism and find a way to bounce back."
But before the Bucs can improve their pass rush, the defense must find a way to limit the amount of success opposing offenses are having via the ground game.
Tampa Bay currently ranks 31st vs. the run, allowing 187 yards per contest, including over 200 yards rushing in two straight games.
"Right now we haven't been good in either department," said Sims. "But we have to stop the run in order to make the opponent pass. We've been behind as a team a lot, so we haven't had as many opportunities to rush the passer as we'd like. We have to force them to be in that position and basically make them one dimensional."
Adams, who currently is nursing a groin injury, isn't the only defensive player to be heavily criticized for his performance. Some have started to wonder if Bates' one-year stint in Denver, which was not successful like his tenures with Miami and Green Bay were, was a red flag and a sign of things to come in Tampa Bay.
But the players are leaning on the fact that Bates' defenses in Miami ranked in the top 10 in all five of his seasons there in hopes of finding similar success in Tampa Bay.
"We know it works. We just have to make it work," Sims said of Bates' scheme. "A lot of times we're in the positions, we just have to make the plays. History is on our side. We know he's a great coach and that the system works. We just have to do it."
The theme at One Buc Place this week was to keep the team together and avoid finger pointing after a 0-3 start. The Bucs defensive linemen are attempting to adhere to that advice. Instead of pointing the finger at each other or Bates, the Bucs defensive line is pointing the finger at the opposing quarterback in hopes of getting to him more frequently.
"Coach Bates is known around this league as one of the best coaches in the NFL," said Adams. "How could we turn our back on him? We can't do that and we're not going to do that. Coach Bates came in here with a great philosophy and we're going to stick with it. It doesn't matter if we have five sacks or 100 sacks. He's still our guy and we still believe in him. That's not going to change."