“Watch the pressure, as the pocket collapsed around Rivers. He can’t step up… The pressure in the face of the quarterback led to an interception” - Solomon Wilcots, CBS Sports
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defense was in 2012 was known across the league as a strong run defense and an awful pass defense. Unlike other sports where there are clear lines between different sections of a defense (baseball has obvious positions, for example), the NFL defense is a whole unit working together. That means while the Buccaneers’ front four can be excited about being the core of a strong run defense, they must also take the blame for being a part of a poor pass defense. So how exactly was the defensive line involved in the highs and lows of the 2012 Buccaneer defensive roller coaster? Let’s look back and see.
The very first drive the Buccaneers defense played this season set the tone for the rest of the year. Facing Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers, the Bucs came out on defense first, and were all over the Panthers running backs and the defense wound up forcing a quick punt. The defense would continue to harass Newton and blow up running plays and screens as they kept Carolina’s offense at bay and picked up a season opening victory. The Buccaneers defensive line had done its job week 1, but there was a long road ahead. We’ll break down the defensive line’s performance by pass rush and run defense, and compile the scores at the end. Let’s start with pass rush…
The unit collectively struggled to pressure Eli Manning in the heartbreaking loss to the New York Giants early in 2012, but Manning required little or no time to lob the ball up for his talented receivers who were simply torching Aqib Talib all afternoon. There were even instances where Manning had Buccaneers running at him, but he had the poise to make the good throw needed to get the ball to his receivers. The defense against the run was there, as it was almost all season, but that only directed more of the Giants’ offense towards the weak Buccaneer pass defense.
The pass rush from the front-line was more active later on in the season, as Christian Ponder, Robert Griffin III, and Phillip Rivers (among others) felt the heat from the Buccaneers’ defensive line. However, in the cases of RG3 and Rivers, they always seemed to have a receiver open over the middle of the field (often the result of Mark Barron or Eric Wright coverage). Ponder tried to beat the pressure by lobbing the ball down the field, which failed to produce results. So to say the Bucs’ defensive line failed to get the pressure needed to help out their defensive backs would be selling short the effort that Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy put forth in 2012.
According to Pro Football Focus, both Bennett and McCoy were among the best at putting pressure on the QB from their respective positions, and both graded out very well at pass rushing in 2012. However, Corvey Irvin was the only other Buccaneer defensive lineman to receive positive marks for pass rushing this past season, leaving Da’Quan Bowers, Adrian Clayborn, and others in the red, deemed to have a less than satisfactory performance. I would argue that, in his short time on the field before being injured, Clayborn was an active member of the defensive line. He failed to get pressure on Cam Newton in week 1, but had moments in the running game against the Panthers. He would only play in 2 more games before hitting injured reserve, so there is certainly plenty of motivation for Adrian to come back strong in 2013.
Overall, I would give the Buccaneers’ defensive line’s pass rushing a D+ (just below average) for 2012, but that’s certainly not the final grade. We need to look more into the run defense before handing out final marks.
From a run defense perspective, the usual suspects of Bennett and McCoy stand out as key figures. The two best Buccaneer linemen in 2012 were very active in getting into the backfield and disrupting plays, starting with that week one win against Carolina. A couple of weeks later against the Cowboys, both Bennett and McCoy would find themselves blowing up Dallas running plays before they could even get started, and holding the run game in check themselves with tackles in the backfield or clogging up space and allowing the linebackers to make plays.
Pro Football Focus grades run defense separately from pass defense, and gives the Buccaneers’ defensive linemen much different scores for stopping the run. Both McCoy and Bennett are near the top, but Da’Quan Bowers, Gary Gibson, and Corvey Irvin all performed well enough to receive positive scores. Roy Miller, who the Buccaneers seem disinterested in re-signing, received a completely neutral grade in terms of run defense. This is likely one of the reasons why he will not be re-signed, as other teams will offer more than he’s worth due to a perception he’s an anchor for a top ranked rush defense. Miller was a solid contributor, but his main asset was taking up space to keep pressure off of Gerald McCoy. This is a role other players can fill, and Miller failed to find another aspect of the game in which he could stand out.
The run defense for the front four would receive an A from me, which leads to the final verdict.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive line was one of the bright spots for a defensive unit that was under intense scrutiny all season long. Apart from LaVonte David (who we will discuss next week), there wasn’t much to feel proud of on defense for the Buccaneers besides this hard working defensive front. Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett both performed extremely well, and Da’Quan Bowers showed promise after returning from injury. All in all, the Buccaneers defensive line earned…
Final Grade: B-