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They say old habits die hard.
That particular adage can certainly apply to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, whose defense set an NFL record in 2003 by recording a sack in 69 straight games but has had a tough time getting their hands on opposing quarterbacks since then.
One game after the Bucs accomplished that great feat, the sack streak ended when Tampa Bay failed to bring down Green Bay Packers QB Brett Favre on November 16, 2003.
This season, the Bucs have been held without a sack in three of their first five games, and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin is having a difficult time coming up with answers to questions regarding Tampa Bay’s porous pass rush this season.
“It’s just a combination of things,” said Kiffin. “We’re close, but we’re not quite getting there. Sometimes we’re a little bit unlucky, but there’s times where we’re not getting the job done, either. It’s a combination of both.
“We’ve just got to get better – there’s no doubt about it.”
Kiffin isn’t the only one stunned by Tampa Bay’s sack total of six through five games.
“Given the history that we’ve had in getting to the opposition, yes (I’m surprised),” said Bucs head coach Jon Gruden. “But there’s a lot of football left to be played and hopefully Monday night we can heat that pass rush up a little bit.”
One of the things that is giving Tampa Bay’s front four problems is opposing offenses’ game plans, which have featured more two-tight-end sets and called for protection to often slide to the left side, which is where they work to hold off defensive end Simeon Rice, who notched 41.5 sacks in his first three years with the Pewter Pirates but has just one quarterback takedown this season.
While Tampa Bay’s defense currently ranks 4th overall, some will argue that the Bucs are missing nine-time Pro Bowler defensive tackle Warren Sapp, who notched 77 career sacks during his nine-year tenure in Tampa Bay before signing with the Oakland Raiders as a free agent last spring.
Although the Bucs did lose Sapp in free agency, they still have Rice and DE Greg Spires, and DT Anthony McFarland, who moved from nose tackle to under tackle this season. That’s why some people will stop short of attributing Sapp’s absence to Tampa Bay’s less-than-stellar pass rush.
“It’s been well-documented that we lost some great players that we’ve had,” said Gruden. “We’re still one of the top five defenses in football in a lot of categories, we’re right there at the top. So we’ve played pretty darn good in a lot of areas. I’m not going to sit here and dwell on the negative all the time with the media. I’m pretty damn happy with what we’re doing on defense, and I think we can get better.”
In fact, the defense’s struggle to record sacks started while Sapp was still in a red and pewter uniform. If you go back to the 2003 season, the Bucs have been held without a sack in seven of their last 11 regular season contests.
The coaches will tell you that they’re getting great effort from their front four. The players will tell you that they need to look within themselves to remedy their recent challenge.
“We need sacks,” said Spires. “I can only put the blame on myself. I should have put more pressure on.”
While sacks are significant numbers in the stat column, quarterback pressures are not, but Coach Kiffin will tell you that they’re just as important.
“You could have two sacks and two pressures and that’s not a very good game,” said Kiffin. “It’s not all just about sacks. It’s about pressures, too.”
Although some would argue that the amount of pressures are lacking as well, the Bucs players feel like they’ve been close to bringing down opposing quarterbacks on a consistent basis.
“We’ve been getting pressure, but we just haven’t been putting them down,” said Spires. “It’s not good enough. We’re 1-4.”
Of course, the ideal situation would be for Tampa Bay’s defense to pressure the quarterback and record sacks in the process.
“We’ve got to get there,” said McFarland, who has two sacks this season. “Everything is relevant. They’re all part of the game. If we had one sack and no pressure, that doesn’t mean that we had a good game. Everything plays together.”
Just how important are sacks?
“Sacks can change the course of a game,” said Spires. “If you sack a guy three times in a row, chances are you are going to get the ball back. A sack-fumble is even better.
“I would rather have one sack in the game at the right time that could cause a change in the game, rather than getting five.”
Last season, Tampa Bay generated 36 sacks. In the Bucs’ Super Bowl season in 2002, they posted 43. In 2001, the team notched 42. In 2000, the Bucs set a franchise-record with 55 sacks.
With six quarterback takedowns registered through the first five games this year, the Bucs are currently on pace to finish the 2004 season with a shockingly low 19 sacks, which would tie the 1986 Bucs team for the lowest sack total in franchise history.
They say old habits die hard. Well, so has Tampa Bay’s pass rush and penchant for recording sacks.
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