TAMPA — Living on the edge hasn’t been much of a thrill ride for the Buccaneers in recent years.
Despite the presence of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, only three clubs have fewer than Tampa Bay’s 24 sacks heading into Sunday’s home matchup against the Buffalo Bills.
While McCoy routinely causes disruption up front, despite drawing constant double teams, Bucs defensive ends are struggling to close the deal.
“I like Adrian Clayborn, but Tampa needs a strong War Daddy they can put out there on the end,” said Fox analyst Tim Ryan, a former NFL defensive tackle. “I’ve always believed you need 15 to 20 sacks combined out of your defensive ends. That’s what good defenses do in this league.”
A year removed from knee surgery, Clayborn has four sacks and 10 quarterback hurries coming off the right edge. On the left side, Daniel Te’o-Nesheim has started 11 games and has only one sack.
Da’Quan Bowers, a second-round draft pick in 2011, has five sacks in his 37-game NFL career. Although he’s healthy, Bowers has been reduced to being a situational player.
“The Bucs have no rushers beyond Gerald and Clayborn,” Ryan said. “The Bowers pick obviously hasn’t worked out.”
The last time Tampa Bay featured a double-digit sacker, Simeon Rice was dropping quarterbacks 14 times in 2005 — which also happens to be the last year the Bucs won more than 10 games.
“You’re right, we haven’t had the production off the edge that we would like in a four-man rush,” said Bucs coach Greg Schiano. “With pressure, it’s been OK, but straight four-man rush, it hasn’t been as good as we would like and that we need.”
In March, Schiano challenged Bowers to register a double-digit sack season. Instead, Bowers has six tackles and a half-sack while playing behind Te’o-Nesheim, a plugger signed off Philadelphia’s practice squad two years ago.
The Bills enter Raymond James with an NFL-high 43 sacks, and most of their pressure comes off the edges, with Mario Williams and Jerry Hughes combining for 20 takedowns.
According to Bucs defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan, ends have to earn the right to rush with abandon in Tampa Bay’s scheme.
“I think on first and second down, it’d be very easy to cut guys loose and let them scream up the field,” Sheridan said. “I think most defensive ends would love to do that. We ask a lot of those guys from a run fit and a run technique and a run support standpoint.
“I think our defensive ends are doing a good job. I know they’d love to just pin their ears back and tear off the edge all the time, but we require them on first down and second to play run techniques first because we want to get into longer downs, where we can turn them loose.”
When the Tampa Bay defense was elite, Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp drew the double teams and ends like Rice and Greg Spires helped introduce passers to ground zero.
McCoy said he hasn’t been frustrated by Tampa Bay’s lack of heat off the edges.
“You just keep playing,” McCoy said. “I love the game, and until I get the quarterback on the ground, I’m going to keep getting him off the spot. You can’t lose trust in your teammates. I’ve got to depend on them to be in place. Against Atlanta (three sacks by McCoy), everybody was in place and look how it turned out.
“I have to keep doing what I’m supposed to do. I can’t let up on my end because I’m worried about what everyone else is doing. That would be a lack of trust that would cause me to do something I’m not supposed to do ... then everything is out of whack.”
Looking ahead, the 2014 draft appears thin at defensive end beyond South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. The Vikings could allow veteran Jared Allen to hit free agency, but he’s likely to command a big contract.
“To me, Gerald McCoy is the most complete defensive tackle in the game,” Ryan said. “The Bucs aren’t that far away. They had Seattle on the ground and didn’t step on their necks, but that was a huge learning experience. They’ve got plenty of good players on defense. What they need is a pass-rushing defensive end, period. It’s that simple.”