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FAB 1. Who Is Going To Lead The Bucs In Sacks?
Gerald McCoy led the Bucs in sacks from 2013-17. With him as the only talented big name player on Tampa Bay’s defensive line, it was easy to pencil McCoy in as the team’s leading sacker each year despite the fact that he never produced a double-digit sack season.
Last year, many – including yours truly – expected newly acquired defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul to lead the Bucs in sacks, which he did with 12.5. Pierre-Paul had twice as many sacks as McCoy did and became the first double-digit sacker in Tampa Bay since Simeon Rice last accomplished that feat in 2005.
Pierre-Paul is still in Tampa Bay, but might be relegated to playing just half a season due to a broken vertebrae in his neck that occurred when he was in a car crash back in May.
Will JPP be the same when he returns? What kind of impact will he make on Tampa Bay’s 2019 season? I explore the answers to those questions in Fab 2.
But it would be very optimistic to expect Pierre-Paul to miss all of training camp and the preseason, as well as the first half of the season and still wind up as the Bucs’ sack leader this season.
So who is going to lead Tampa Bay in sacks in 2019?
I asked several members of the Bucs defense in the locker room and the question left a bewildered look on everyone’s face.
Without McCoy and Pierre-Paul, it’s anyone’s guess as to who will be the Bucs’ sackmaster this season.
“We could have a lot of guys with a lot of sacks, but maybe not a double-digit sacker – who knows?” said Bucs defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who is also known by his “Nacho” nickname. “I definitely see us spreading out our sacks kind of evenly. There are so many different packages – nickel, base, sub with people coming from everywhere. I don’t see one person taking all the sacks.”
Through four preseason games the Bucs produced 14 sacks, led by linebacker Shaq Barrett and defensive linemen Nunez-Roches and Pat O’Connor, who each had two. But perhaps more importantly, 12 players had at least half a sack. The pressure that new defensive coordinator Todd Bowles brings with his exotic blitz packages gives all 11 defenders a chance to rush the quarterback at different times.
Tampa Bay’s change to Bowles’ 3-4 scheme not only shifts the landscape of the Bucs defense, which has been a 4-3 front since the days of Sam Wyche in the early 1990s, it also means that the team’s leading sacker might not be a defensive lineman. The last time that happened was when outside linebacker Broderick Thomas had 11 sacks in 1991 under Richard Williamson.
Carl Nassib, who played defensive end last year in a 4-3 scheme before becoming an outside linebacker in Bowles’ defense, had a career-high 6.5 sacks last year playing opposite Pierre-Paul. Nassib had a great camp, is becoming a leader on defense with the absence of McCoy and Pierre-Paul, and is poised for a big season in a contract year. I expected that a lot of his teammates to suggest that he would be the leading sacker this year, but that wasn’t the case.
“To be honest with you, I would put my chips on me,” Nunez-Roches laughed. “You really can’t know who is coming or where the pressure is coming from because we’re going to come from all angles. We’re all going to eat at the end of the day.
“That’s why I love this defense – the disguises. Everybody comes from different angles at different times. You can’t just hone in on one person or one position. Who are you going to double team? It keeps the offense honest.”
O’Connor, who started the offseason as a 6-foot-4, 270-pound outside linebacker, moved inside to defensive line during camp, which is where he played as a defensive end over the last two years on Tampa Bay’s 53-man roster and practice squad. He posted his second sack of the preseason in the team’s 17-15 win at Dallas and believes the Bucs defense is at a distinct advantage entering the season with this new scheme and the fact that there is no Pro Bowl pass rusher to game plan against.
“There’s no marked man,” O’Connor said. “Anybody on our defense can just roll out and go make some plays. It’s going to be interesting. A few days ago Nacho had two sacks and I had one the week before and the week before Carl had one, so it can be anyone at any time. It’s going to be interesting to say the least. It takes a lot of stress off of everybody. You don’t have to worry about being ‘the guy’ and everybody can just go play.”
Last year under new defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, the Bucs had 10 players produce 38 sacks, which was a huge improvement over the previous year when the front seven had just 22 sacks. That got former defensive line coach Jay Hayes fired after the 2017 campaign – and with good reason.
Of those 38 sacks, the Bucs only had three players with five sacks or more, with 31.5 of those sacks coming from six defensive linemen. Tampa Bay didn’t blitz its linebackers much under former defensive coordinators Mike Smith and Mark Duffner, and the unit only produced 6.5 sacks from four linebackers. The defensive backs didn’t record any sacks, as they weren’t typically involved in the blitzes.
When Bowles first become a defensive coordinator in Arizona in 2013 during Bruce Arians’ first year as the Cardinals coach, 14 players produced 47 sacks, led by linebacker John Abraham’s 11.5. Six linebackers produced 25.5 sacks and five defensive linemen registered a total of 18.5 sacks, led by Calais Campbell’s nine. Bowles also got two sacks from safeties on blitzes.
In 2014, the Cardinals didn’t have Abraham, and their sack total dropped to 35 as a result. Still, 16 different players recorded at least one sack that year, with 17 sacks coming from eight linebackers, 14 sacks coming from four defensive linemen and four sacks coming from the secondary with two safeties and two cornerbacks each getting one quarterback capture.
The loss of a proven pass rusher like Pierre-Paul for at least half the season will force Bowles to manufacture pressure by blitzing more players from different spots on the field. The Bucs might get somewhere between 35-40 sacks with 14-16 different defenders combining for that production.
Tampa Bay likely won’t have a double-digit sacker this year due to JPP’s injury, and for the first time in a long while that may be okay. I could see four or five defenders getting at least five sacks this year and another 10 chipping in with one or two here or there, to cobble together a pretty decent pass rush.
And while the Bucs didn’t have a defensive back record a sack last year, look for that to change in 2019 as Bowles like to blitz the nickel cornerback about as often as Monte Kiffin did with Bucs Ring of Honor inductee Ronde Barber, who finished his legendary career with 28 sacks from blitzing.
“The pressure can come from anywhere – even from us DBs,” said nickel cornerback M.J. Stewart. “It’s a very aggressive defense. We’re going to mess with teams and get them to turn one way and we’ll come the other way. That’s how we’ll get them.”
Barber had a career-high 5.5 sacks in 2000, including 3.5 in the first two games, which made him the Bucs’ leading sacker heading into Week 3 that year – ahead of Warren Sapp.
“That would be cool if I did it, too,” Stewart said. “There are a few times where the line turns away from me, and the protection turns away from me and I’m free and I just beat a one-on-one block. I’m looking to get a few sacks this year. I’m going to be in the race. It’s definitely possible because we do a lot of things that involve the nickel. I’m looking forward to getting some sacks.”
So who is going to lead the Bucs in sacks this year? I’ve had some sources at the AdventHealth Training Center tell me they think it’s going to be Barrett, who has the most of any healthy outside linebacker with 14 in his NFL career – not including Pierre-Paul’s 71. Ndamukong Suh has 56 career sacks and can’t be counted out, either.
My money is on Nassib with Barrett being a close second. I think “Carl Nasty” wants to make a statement this year and earn a big-money contract in 2020. I say he leads the team with eight.
“Carl? He’s going to be tough to beat, but trust me – M.J. is going to be in there, too!” Stewart said with a laugh, tooting his own horn.
“I have no idea who is going to lead the team in sacks,” O’Connor said. “It’s kind of fun. It’s definitely going to be a weekly fight to see who ends up with the most.”
The sack battle begins against Jimmy Garoppolo next Sunday when San Francisco comes to town.