FAB 3. Can Clarke Help Bucs’ Pass Rush?
Time ran out on Will Clarke IV in Cincinnati, and the Bucs are hoping that the 6-foot-6, 275-pound defensive end can jump start his career in Tampa Bay while helping the team’s struggling pass rush, especially with the sudden release of Jacquies Smith, who was slow to return from a torn ACL injury that cost him the entire 2016 season.
“I came down and worked out, and they were interested in signing me,” Clarke said. “I was interested in being signed.”
The Bucs are interested to see if a change of scenery – yet with some familiarity – can help Clarke reach his full potential. Clarke comes to Tampa Bay with 25 tackles and 4.5 sacks in his three-year career in Cincinnati as a reserve defensive end. Four of his career sacks came last year early, but he failed to progress as the season went on. Clarke is a defensive end with great physical tools, yet the Bengals viewed him as an underachiever and were prepared to move on from him in the offseason.
In addition to Pro Bowl defensive end Carlos Dunlap along with Michael Johnson at the position, the Bengals acquired defensive end Chris Smith from Jacksonville in the offseason, and then drafted two more defensive ends in Jordan Willis and Carl Lawson in the third and fourth rounds, respectively, which sealed Clarke’s fate. He was released in the Bengals’ final roster cut-downs.
Bucs defensive line coach Jay Hayes helped draft Clarke in 2014 when he coached the Bengals’ defensive line. Clarke had 9.5 sacks in his West Virginia career, including six as a senior when he was considered to be a late bloomer by NFL scouts. While he had the size and athletic ability to be drafted, the lack of pass rush production pushed him down to the third round.
Clarke is happy to be reunited with Hayes and learned a lot from playing alongside Bengals like Pro Bowl defensive tackle Geno Atkins and Dunlap.
“Carlos is a freak of nature for his size,” Clarke said. “He’s 6-foot-6, 280 pounds and can run like a cat and move like a cat. Carlos has taught me a lot of the stuff he learned from Coach Hayes about preparing for offensive tackles and what moves to use against certain guys. You can’t use the same move in certain situations.”
In his fourth season, the 26-year old still has some upside. Bucs defensive tackle Gerald McCoy has been impressed with his work ethic and how quickly he’s assimilated into Tampa Bay’s defensive line rotation.
“I don’t know how much of a vet you would consider him, but Will has a lot of knowledge,” McCoy said. “You see him on tape and you see him in Cincinnati, but you don’t know what type of guy he’s going to be and what type of player and person. Then he comes in and fits right into the room. He just goes with the flow of how we do things. When he gets out of practice he works his tail off. He has a good skill set as far as rushing the passer. He’s picking the defense up pretty fast. I think Coach [Mike] Zimmer ran something similar. He’s going to help us out a lot and I’m glad we’ve got him.”
Clarke adds the type of size Hayes likes in his defensive ends. In Cincinnati, three of Hayes’ defensive ends – Dunlap, Johnson and Clarke – were 6-foot-6, while Margus Hunt was 6-foot-8.
“With Coach Hayes, sure he likes tall guys, but if he thinks you have the potential to rush and he can teach you how to rush,” Clarke said. “As much as we like to think defenses are the same, every little defense has its tweaks and tricks of the trade. I think with the more reps I get in practice it will help. The more reps I get in the game – that’s the best way you can learn.”
After being inactive for the season opener against Chicago, Clarke played nine snaps on defense and three on special teams at Minnesota in his first action with the Bucs in Week 3, posting one tackle. In Sunday’s win against New York, Clarke saw an increase in playing time with 15 snaps on defense and seven on special teams. On Thursday night Clarke played six snaps on defense and recovered Tom Brady’s fumble after he was sacked by linebacker Adarius Glanton.
“He’s a guy that can play left defensive end and slide down inside,” Bucs defensive coordinator Mike Smith said. “He made a nice play, I believe, on the [special] teams. He got his hand on a punt. He is a guy that can push the pocket. He is still learning our system. The one good thing is, is it’s similar to what he was used to playing in Cincinnati. He is a big, long guy.”
Clarke nearly made a splash play on the Giants’ first punt of the game in the first quarter.
“I just got off and had it in my mind that I wanted to try to block it, but I overextended,” Clarke said. “I put my arm past it and it hit off my wrist. I’ve got to have better hand-eye coordination next time so I can do a [Dikembe] Mutombo and block it.”
Bucs left tackle Donovan Smith, who faces Clarke in practice, has been impressed with Tampa Bay’s newest defensive addition.
“He’s long, he’s quick and he’s a good pass rusher,” Smith said. “It’s obvious that he has experience. I’m sure it’s helped him coming here and having that background with Jay. He plays with great energy and he’s an asset to the team.”
Each year there is a defensive end at the bottom of the depth chart that the Bucs are attempting to mold into a contributing pass rusher, and Clarke is the latest addition that fits the criteria. Finding defensive ends that can get to the quarterback in the NFL isn’t easy, and general manager Jason Licht is always on the lookout for pass rushers.
While Licht had some initial success with Jacquies Smith, who was claimed off the waiver wire in 2014, prior to his torn ACL last year, he’s churned the roster with the likes of T.J. Fatinikun, Howard Jones, Kourtnei Brown and Ryan Russell over the last couple of years without much success outside of a few splash plays from Jones in 2015 before his knee injury. Perhaps Clarke will buck the trend.
“I’m more knowledgeable on situations and my opponent now,” Clarke said. “You can’t use the same moves every week. You have to be versatile and switch it up. Learning from the guys I was around in Cincinnati for three years – Geno, Mike, Domata, Carlos – and now learning from the guys down here and learning from Gerald, Clinton, Rob and even a young guy like Noah. I would say my game is balanced. I can play against both the run and the pass pretty well – inside and out.”
The departure of Smith, who had seven plays last week against the Giants, likely means an increase of snaps for Clarke as the season goes on. With the Bucs having just four sacks through four games, Tampa Bay needs all the help it can get rushing the passer.
“You can have a week where sacks are going to flow in and you are going to have a week where sacks aren’t,” Clarke said. “We’re not trying to do anything different or force anything. We’re going to stick to the plan. It’s Coach Smith’s defense and we’re going to run it to the best of our ability, learn the best that we can and just execute. We’ll be all right. I don’t think there is anything to worry about.
“The one thing all quarterbacks have in common is that they don’t want to be hit. Nobody wants to be hit. Don’t buy into the name and keep everything consistent. Whether it’s Mike Glennon, Case Keenum, Eli Manning or Tom Brady. All have different abilities throwing the football, but at the end of the day when defensive linemen are running at them they all want to do the same thing. We’ve just got to get them down.”