Over the coming months we'll be going through the different positions on the team, analyzing how they performed last year and what needs to improve for next year. To get a couple of different points of view I've asked the other Bucs Nation writers to contribute for these pieces as well.
This week: Interior Defensive Line
As a whole, this was probably one of the weaker groups overall. Plagued by a terrible start and a injury plagued finish makes it hard to give the IDL a fair evaluation. It's hard for me to deliniate between the poor play of the tackles versus the ends, because much of it goes hand in hand. Gerald McCoy, the 3rd overall draft pick and future of our defense, looked like he was still playing college guards and centers for the first five weeks of the season. He struggled to get his hands on linemen, controlling the blocker. Wash may be successful with veteran players, but for young players making the transition he wasn't able to help them adjust to the strength and speed of NFL offensive lineman. As a result, McCoy failed to learn how to fight against centers and guards blocking down on him. Many times if the Center was blocking McCoy's inside shoulder, he was taken completely out of the play. Where McCoy succeeded was when he was able to use his athleticism to beat blockers one on one. As the season wore on, McCoy improved. I'll be honest, I didn't expect quite a slow start from McCoy, but that was unfair expectations on my part; not necessarily a disappointing start for McCoy.
Obviously, we don't have much to go on when evaluating Brian Price. The question next season will be if Price can use his strength to compliment McCoy. If Price can use up two blockers, it will allow McCoy to do his thing. If he can't, players will continue to attempt to kick out McCoy, and most likely successfully. Roy Miller has a better understanding of offensive schemes. Something that came with an extra year of experience. However, what Miller is awful at is playing with his pad level too high. As are many DT's, Miller is short (6'2) playing against guard and Centers that average at probably 6'5. Maybe his thought is that he already has leverage on them, but I can show you play after play where these 6'6 lineman are getting underneath his pad level and driving him 3 yards off the ball. He has got to learn to play lower and leverage his strength. If he can do that, he can be a very productive Defensive lineman. He's got the strength and drive, he just has to learn to use it properly. Miller did start playing better the last 3 weeks of the season. Okam and Bennett who they used to fill in after McCoy's injury also played decent, but not enough to warrant a starting position or valuable rotation minutes. I don't think any changes are necessary to make with this unit in the offseason. The draft picks have been used to fill the roster. The biggest change will be on the player development and the new Defensive Line coach they bring in. I expect McCoy, Price and Miller all to improve and respond to better coaching.
Optimism abounded following the selection of DTs Gerald McCoy and Brian Price in the first 2 rounds of the draft. Price was quickly slotted into the NT position and made an early impact in rookie and training camps. However, a hamstring injury limited his effectiveness during the first few weeks and a pelvis injury eventually landed him on IR after 6 games. Roy Miller, who manned the nose position from the start of the year, was solid but unspectacular alongside Gerald McCoy at 3-tech. McCoy showed the signs of a rookie struggling to get up to the speed of NFL action and skill of NFL o-linemen. Finally, after about half a season, he began to make a significant impact, developing more consistent pressure and finally garnering his first QB sack at San Francisco after narrowly missing on multiple opportunities the week before against Carolina. His push up the middle helped cut off running lanes and was a big factor in the Bucs holding Frank Gore to 23 yards on 12 carries. His impact was felt after his season ended abruptly with a biceps injury, as the run defense suffered after his absence. McCoy had become very effective in getting off the line quickly and getting a push upfield.
However, a guy who's been surprisingly effective out of nowhere, at least to me, is jack-of-all-trades Michael Bennett. In the home finale, Bennett started at RDE over Stylez White and played all four positions on the line. Bennett more than held his own at 3-technique against the Redskins after McCoy's departure. He was able to use his speed and get a jump on the Redskin zone blocking schemes, which helped the Bucs completely shut down Torain and the Washington running game in the second half. He's an extremely useful player who basically serves as a viable backup for every D-line position.
Frank Okam has the size to play a two-gap system and is a more ideal short-yardage/goalline guy. He's shown the ability to be effective as a one-gap player, as he graded out well against Seattle, but consistency is a concern, as he had a very poor game the prior week vs. Detroit.
Al Woods probably should be considered a depth guy at this point, but was effective enough to remain in the conversation as a possible contributor going forward. The Bucs signed him off the Steelers' practice squad in response to Brian Price going on IR.
I don't think there's any doubt that this was one of the weakest position on the team this year. Despite spending the top two draft picks on Defensive Tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, the run defense was poor and the team struggled to get to the passer for most of the year. While McCoy probably played the most snaps of any defensive linemen until his injury, he struggled initially to get used to the NFL game. While he'd flash the skills why he was drafted at times, he'd also be shut out at other times. Thankfully he got better as the year progressed, to the point where over the last 3 full games he helped shut down opposing running games and consistently beat his opponents to pressure the quarterback. With 3 total sacks against the Ravens and the 49ers one could point to those games and see his improvement clearly on the stat sheet, but despite notching no tackles and sacks I will point to his Week 13 performance against Atlanta as his best game of the year. He was constantly in the backfield during that game, notching 4 pressures by my count, an additional 2 QB hits and forcing a Holding penalty. If his rehab goes well, hopefully he can have that kind of impact in every game.
Roy Miller is the other player who played the most snaps on the defensive line by my estimation. A starter at nose tackle and a second year player, Roy Miller had a decent year but still struggled anchoring in the run game at times, and will never be a force against the pass. Brian Price was expected to compete for the same spot, but struggled with a hip injury and went on IR early in the season after barely getting on the field. Al Woods and Frank Okam were late additions to the squad, having been grabbed off practice squads late in the year. Despite a limited time to familiarize themselves with the system, both those players got on the field during the last games of the season and both played adequately, though not much more than that. The Bucs actually have some solid depth along the interior defensive line now, but will need their top players to step up next season.
While in the past, the Bucs would rarely stray from their defensive approach of 4 down linemen, this year things were different. Raheem Morris played a lot of 3-3-5 (3 down linemen, 3 linebackers, 5 defensive backs) in passing situations, and even some 3-4 in the last game of the season against New Orleans. Morris clearly wants his players to be multiple and versatile to deal with these schemes. McCoy lined up both at nose tackle and at undertackle in a 4-3 alignment, and played at all 3 different positions in the 3-3-5. Michael Bennett was similarly utilized and probably played at every position on the defensive line over the season. Toward the future I'd expect Raheem Morris to look for those versatile players, and to mix up what he does along the defensive line depending on the talent available to him.
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