Cover 3 is a weekly feature column written by PewterReport.com’s Tampa Bay Bucs beat writer Trevor Sikkema published every Tuesday. The column, as its name suggests, comes in three phases: a statistical observation, an in-depth film breakdown, and a “this or that” segment where the writer asks the reader to chose between two options.
Sikkema’s Stat of the Week
It was truly – and I really do mean truly – pathetic. Just 22 sacks? All season? In 16 games during the 2017 season … only 22 sacks? I could have sworn the Bucs were going to break a record for the lowest amount of sacks by a team in NFL history, but that record is actually just 10 sacks by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008. However, in the moment, it still felt like it was as bad as it could get.
Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy led the team in sacks with six and fellow defensive tackle Clinton McDonald recorded five, but outside of them, no one Buccaneer had more than 2.5. If the sheer lack of numbers wasn’t enough, there were fans out there who were actually calling for Buccaneer legend Simeon Rice, who had retired from the game eight years prior, to suit up for the team and try to lead the team in sacks.
Can you believe that? The Bucs’ defensive pressure was so non-existent that they weren’t just asking for an aging, retired veteran or a guy off the street or even a look towards next year’s free agency class. They were convincing themselves that a 43-year-old pass rusher would have been better than anything they currently had to watch.
The Bucs can never go back to that place.
Though it felt like an all-time low, the Bucs have never really been a team known for applying the pressure. In franchise history, Lee Roy Selmon, Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice are the top three men for sacks with 78.5, 77 and 69.5 sacks, respectively, and McCoy comes next with 54.5. But after him there isn’t a single player over 35 sacks, and there are only two who have more than 30. Heck, cornerback Ronde Barber is their seventh-leading sacker with 28.
The following season things did improve after defensive line coach Jay Hayes was fired, which PewterReport.com called for. In 2018, the Bucs amassed 38 sacks, which was right around middle of the road for NFL teams. Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul finally broke the double-digit sack drought left by Rice before he retired with 12.5 sacks, while Carl Nassib recorded 6.5 and McCoy once again recorded six. A much better group at the top, but after those three there wasn’t much reliability.
New defensive coordinator Todd Bowles is here to change that in Tampa Bay.
But Bowles can’t do it alone; he needs a hero.
It would make all this a lot easier if there were stats to support that wherever Bowles was throughout his NFL coaching career, sacks numbers increased, or were at least pretty high. But that’s not the case at all. In 2012, as defensive coordinator for the Philadelphia Eagles, Bowles’ defense tied for 25th in the league with 30 sacks. In 2013 and 2014 with the Arizona Cardinals, under head coach Bruce Arians, they were tied for sixth the first year with 47, but then 24th the next year with 35. During his four-year tenure as head coach with the New York Jets, Bowles’ teams recorded 39, 27, 28 and 39 sacks, respectively.
Over the least seven seasons, it hasn’t been as easy as “Bowles makes front pressure better” no matter what. But, in his best seasons, there has been a common factor. In his 47-sack season with Arizona, Bowles had edge rusher John Abraham record 11.5 sacks. Without Abraham the following year, Alex Okafor led the team from the same position but with eight sacks. In his first 39-sack season with the Jets, Bowles saw edge rusher Muhammad Wilkerson record 12 sacks. And, in his final 39-sack season, he saw a pair of seven-sack players in Jordan Jenkins and Henry Anderson lead the team from the edge rushing spot.
The common denominator in Bowles’ best years? An emphasized edge rusher.
Now, this can sort of be a “duh” moment, as every team would obviously like to have a top edge rusher – a guy capable of getting double-digit sacks. This is why these players are so coveted in the draft. But I think it is important to make sure that it’s known because there has been all this talk of versatility up front and A-gap pressure with linebackers over the past few months. All of that plays a role into creating pressure, but, at the end of the day, Bowles, like many defensive masterminds, needs a stud on the edge.
He needs a hero.
Who could that hero be? Jason Pierre-Paul.
I have absolutely no idea how far along Pierre-Paul’s injured neck is in his recovery from his car crash this summer. His timetable was originally set for him to return somewhere between October and November after electing to not have surgery. I don’t know what the status of this team will be by then when it comes to a potential playoff push. But I do know that if he comes back and they’re still in it, that’s when we’ll see Bowles defense achieve its top form.
On Monday, Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said there was no update on Pierre-Paul’s status and there’s also no need for him to be at the team’s facility during his rest and recovery period.
“No, because he knows how to rush the passer and that’s all he’s going to do,” Arians said.
But Bowles needs a hero now. The Bucs can’t wait for JPP to be their only savior. If they hold out hope that long without one, they likely won’t make it long enough for his return to even matter. Someone on this team has to step up and take claim to the outside linebacker position that Bowles has found success with in his 3-4 defense throughout his career as a defensive coordinator.
Just who might that initial hero be? We dive into that on the next page.