TAMPA — They don’t have to be the Fantastic Four, but they’ve got to be darned close.
For the Buccaneers to resurrect an elite defense that fueled their championship run more than a decade ago, a talented and deeper defensive line must key a turnaround under new head coach Lovie Smith and first-year defensive coordinator Leslie Frazier.
“That’s the way it should be,’’ defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said. “We shouldn’t have to rely on five-man and six-man blitzes to get pressure on the quarterback. Coach Lovie has put it upon ourselves as D-linemen to get it done, so we’re going to take the challenge.’’
The Bucs haven’t boasted a double-digit sacker since Simeon Rice was coming off the right edge with a vengeance nine years ago.
In the offseason, Tampa Bay signed defensive end Michael Johnson and defensive tackle Clinton McDonald as free agents, hoping to bolster a pass rush that generated 35 sacks last season — tied for 23rd in the league.
None of the eight clubs with fewer sacks than Tampa Bay qualified for the playoffs.
“I think this scheme fits all the defensive linemen’s skill sets here,’’ said McDonald, who will compete against second-year pro Akeem Spence for the starting nose tackle spot next to two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.
“They want us to get upfield, cause disruptions and make plays. We’re going to have freedom, but with that freedom comes responsibility — we have to keep the integrity of the defense.’’
Employing a hybrid scheme, the Bucs blitzed often during the past two seasons in an effort to disrupt the timing of opposing quarterbacks. Smith’s return to core Tampa 2 principles will place more of a burden on the front four to hound passers into mistakes.
“Our scheme is pretty basic,’’ said defensive end Adrian Clayborn, who shifts to the left side this fall to accommodate Johnson’s arrival. “Everyone knows what the Tampa 2 is all about. It’s on our defensive line to get off the ball and cause disruption. Everyone I see around here is really embracing this scheme. It’s a lot less thinking. Guys can just go out and play football.’’
When the Bucs were perennial playoff contenders, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp led the way up front. Tampa Bay routinely dropped seven defenders into coverage and quarterbacks had little time to proceed through their progressions.
During Smith’s nine years as coach of the Bears, Chicago featured three different defensive linemen who posted at least 10 sacks in a season: Julius Peppers, Mark Anderson, Adewale Ogunleye.
The Bears averaged 36 sacks despite blitzing infrequently and led the NFL with 310 takeaways in those nine seasons under Smith.
“I feel like for our whole defensive front, it should be a career year for all of us,’’ said second-year defensive end William Gholston. “As a defensive line, we can’t wait to embrace the challenge before us. It’s not even a challenge ... it’s a luxury for us. We’re the rush men, and all of us are putting it on our shoulders to get it done.’’
With Johnson poised to attract multiple blockers off his right shoulder, McCoy is eager to improve on his nine-sack effort last year.
“You come in knowing that we have possibly the best interior lineman on our football team,’’ Smith said of McCoy, the third overall pick in the 2010 draft.
McCoy’s exploits didn’t go unnoticed in the Pacific Northwest.
“Oh man, it’s going to an eye opener for me playing with Gerald,’’ said McDonald, who had 5.5 sacks in limited playing time with the Seahawks last year. “He’s going to help me get better as a player. He’s a good guy and he’s a monster on that field. Last year in Seattle, all of our defensive linemen would watch him on film.’’
In his first three NFL seasons before joining the Bucs in 2013, tight end Tom Crabtree faced Chicago’s defense regularly as a member of the Packers. He knows what Tampa Bay opponents will be up against in 2014.
“It’s definitely the front four in Chicago that stands out in my mind,’’ Crabtree said. “They were big and physical guys, much like the players we have right here in this room.’’