TAMPA — Wednesday, Bucs defensive end Adrian Clayborn was asked about the defensive line’s pass rush last season.
“What rush?” Clayborn said.
“What rush?” remains a real question, one of the biggest, until this retooled defensive line says different. There are new faces, namely Michael Johnson and Clinton McDonald, but the big Lovie-fest will get flattened if this front doesn’t put quarterbacks on their rumps.
Darrelle Revis is gone, along with the experiment of building a defense from the back to front — an elite corner helping generate a pass rush. It was a goofy idea then, and it’s goofy now. But Revis’ talent will be missed if it doesn’t happen up front. Lovie Smith’s idea is the same one from all those years ago, when Warren Sapp and Simeon Rice helped set the tone for the Tampa 2 and history.
The Bucs had just 35 sacks last season, though it was the first time they’d broken 30 since 2008. Yes, they’ve been awful for that many years. This franchise hasn’t had a 10-sack guy since Rice in 2005.
To repeat, 2005.
It has to start up front.
“I believe it as much now as I did then,” Smith said. “We will blitz. A misnomer about the Tampa 2 is we won’t blitz. We’ll blitz about a third of the time. But we want to be able to rush and get pressure based on a four-man front and blitz when we want to, not because we have to because we can’t get pressure up front. ... Until we can do that, we’re not going to win any football games.”
Gerald McCoy seems poised to become a force of nature. But defensive end Michael Johnson, who came over from Cincinnati and got a five-year deal worth $44 million, has yet to show up in a game, not so much as one quarterback pressure.
It’s early. It’s earlier than early. But it can’t just be McCoy. Or tackle McDonald, another big signing. Johnson was brought here to wreak havoc. There’s a lot riding on his performance. He had 11.5 sacks in 2012, but just 3.5 last season. If 2012 doesn’t show up in 2014, the lads are in trouble. He’ll play into the third quarter in Buffalo on Saturday, along with the rest of the starters. He needs to come to play.
“I’ve seen good play from Michael,” Smith said. “The dominating play that I feel that we’re going to get, no, we haven’t seen that. ...
“But around the league, I would say that a lot of the players who will end up playing great ball during the season haven’t played this great ball during the preseason. I don’t look too much into the preseason on how guys play. Stay healthy, get the defense down, and we’ll turn them loose from there. Very pleased. No disappointment in Michael Johnson.”
Clayborn needs to raise his game, too. He had 7.5 sacks as a rookie in 2011, then rebounded from injury, sort of, with six sacks last season. But he’s moving to left end to make room for Johnson, not easy. Clayborn is a good kid, high energy (“Like the Eveready battery, the rabbit or whatever that thing is,” Lovie said) and worlds ahead of fellow 2011 Bucs draft pick Da’Quan Bowers, who is injured and drifting toward oblivion.
Clayborn believes, truly, that double-digit sacks are possible for him, McCoy and Johnson. McCoy came close in 2013, with 9.5.
“That’s the goal that every defensive lineman should have,” he said. “It’s reachable this year for all three of us, or everybody.”
Repeating: Simeon Rice, 2005.
Just last season, 24 NFL players had 10 or more sacks. Saturday’s opponent, the Buffalo Bills, had three guys finish with 10 or more sacks. The Bills had 41 sacks last season from defensive linemen. The Bucs got about half that from their front.
“It wasn’t great,” Clayborn said. “It wasn’t jelling. We weren’t working together. A lot of stuff went on.”
A new season. It’s about front to back, not back to front.
“I think that’s the way defense is supposed to be played,” Clayborn said. “I’m not going to say that, but we’re trying to get to that point and get a rush and take some of the pressure off the DBs.”
It beats, What rush?