Making Ends Meet: Why Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn Are Keys to Bucs’ D Success


Aug 16, 2014; Tampa, FL, USA; Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Michael Johnson (90) reacts after he recovered a fumble during the second quarter against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be in Buffalo in the all-important third preseason game.

It’s the dress rehearsal for the regular season, and head coach Lovie Smith says you should expect the team’s starters to play well into the third quarter. And with all of the focus on the Bucs’ failures on the offensive side of the ball, I want to bring some back to the team’s strength: the defense. Specifically, the defensive ends.

Free agent pickup Michael Johnson is expected to develop into this defense’s Simeon Rice. He’s getting back to breathing down quarterbacks’ necks before striking and bringing them down to the ground for the sack. Adrian Clayborn, entering his 4th season in Tampa, has moved over to the left defensive end position in an effort to maximize his production. He’s struggled against opposing left tackles in the past (which tends to be the strongest player on the offensive line), so the Buccaneers are hoping that he’ll have a lot more success going against right tackles.

Hopefully he does, as Bucs fans are dying for a taste of something that will get them excited.

With optimism for the offense being the lowest it has been in a long while, those fans might have to depend on Tampa Bay’s defense. And as we all know, the pass rush is an integral part of the world famous Tampa 2 defense. With Gerald McCoy as this defense’s leader, and Lavonte David tackling everything in sight, the Bucs’ front seven needs some production from the defensive end position to ensure that this team will be feared by opposing offense’s all season long.

One big reason why these ends are needed more than ever is the team’s secondary. Alterraun Verner, who was signed to replace Darrelle Revis, has been injured for most of training with a hamstring injury, and will make his 2014 debut this Saturday. With he and fellow cornerback Mike Jenkins both injured, the Buccaneers will have to rattle opposing quarterbacks to ensure that passes won’t reach their intended target, even if the corner has been beaten on the play.

Another reason, which might be completely selfish, is excitement. I miss the days when we could count on Simeon Rice to make the quarterback’s world a living hell as soon as he dropped back to pass. Sacks, strips, fumbles, recoveries, passes batted at the line…I miss them all.

In a Tampa 2 defense, as a I mentioned before, the defensive end position is vital. We all saw Ryan Tannehill and Matt Moore find holes in the Bucs’ zone, and that will continue to happen if the pressure doesn’t get to the quarterback in time. In today’s NFL, you cannot expect a linebacker to cover his man over the middle of the field, especially if he has to keep the play in front of him in a zone defense. The key is timing the play right to either knock the pass down, or just ensure that the receiver can’t advance any further. With great play from the defensive ends, the timing becomes disrupted for the offense. The button hooks aren’t as crisp. The quarterback’s steps aren’t as decisive. The throw isn’t as sharp or accurate. Everything changes, and the linebackers, cornerbacks, and safeties are all chomping at the bit to catch a wobbling duck over the middle.

Looking at the players specifically, this season means so much for Johnson and Clayborn. Johnson is looking to prove to the Buccaneers that he was worth the investment. His big time contract came after a disappointing final season with the Cincinnati Bengals, in which he only recorded 3.5 sacks. He’ll need to regain his prime form, if only to keep Bucs fans from becoming critics.

And then there is Clayborn, who hasn’t panned out as the Buccaneers thought he would since day one. He’s battled injuries, and dealt with poor coaching his entire career. Now, with a new position, and Lovie Smith controlling his fate, the former Iowa standout must show what he is capable of. He’s in the final year of his contract with Tampa Bay, so for him, it is now or never.

If they falter, then the Bucs will once again enter an offseason with a need at defensive end.

If they succeed, however, then the Buccaneers’ defense could become a force to be reckoned with.