Bucs young defensive line leaves first game without stats, but shows promise

If you read some reports today, you would think that the Bucs were still starting Ryan Sims at defensive tackle. Even Peter King had to throw in a barb toward that defensive line in his weekly column. And at first glance, that may be deserving: no sacks, no QB hits and Matt Stafford throwing the ball at will, while that Lions running game looked strangely competent as well. But first looks deceive, and the defensive line performed much better than you would think from reading these reports. 

Let's start with run defense. While Raheem Morris claimed that the nose tackles didn't play well enough, the result was still pretty good. The Bucs gave up a total of 126 yards rushing, but 25 of those yards came on an end-around to Nate Burleson and a backward pass Tony Scheffler. Neither can truly be classified as runs. 

Instead, the Bucs held the actual running backs to 101 yards on 32 carries, which amounts to 3.16 yards per carry. That's a pretty good total for any run defense. But it could have been even better - missed tackles and a nickel defense hurt the Bucs run defense.

As an example, the Detroit Lions came out with a three-tight end set. In response to that, the Bucs put a nickel defense out on the field, taking linebacker Mason Foster off and adding E.J. Biggers at cornerback. The result was predictably a 9-yard run. The defensive line did a good job on this play, but you can't defend a three-tight end run with nickel personnel. 

Another example of how the Bucs should have done better came on a first-and-ten run to open the fourth quarter. The defensive line gets great penetration, and Adrian Clayborn hits Jahvid Best six yards behind the line of scrimmage, but he bounces of that tackle. Then, Cody Grimm misses a tackle at seven yards back. Best then jukes out Biggers at five yards behind the line of scrimmage, before turning the corner and being pushed out of bounds by Ronde Barber. Because of sloppy tackling by the Bucs, Best turned what should have been a major loss into a four-yard gain. Whoops. 

Missed tackles were a big reason why this run defense seemed to be struggling, and why they could have done much better. This affected all levels of the defense: the defensive line, the linebackers and the defensive backs. It's sloppy, and there's no reason for it - but it's also something that is relatively easy to improve on. 

 

As for the pass rush, the Bucs never really got a chance there, but they looked very potent despite that. The Detroit Lions predominantly ran a short passing attack, where Stafford got the ball out of his hands within two seconds. When that happens, a defensive line has no chance to apply any pressure.

But when the Lions did go with deeper drops and Stafford needed more time in the pocket, the Bucs applied consistent pressure. It didn't show up on the stat sheet, but especially Adrian Clayborn and Gerald McCoy were disruptive. Gerald McCoy showed off his explosive first step both as a pass rusher and in run defense, while Adrian Clayborn was active and forced Stafford to throw early pretty often. 

We shouldn't be surprised with this result. The Lions ran a predominantly short passing game last year as well and have continued to do so. That offensive line had an adjusted sack rate of 4.3%, which ranked fourth in the league. That wasn't necessarily the case because that offensive line was great, although it's not bad either. Mostly, that was caused by the quarterbacks getting that ball out of their hands quickly.

In short: don't emphasize the lack of production, but simply look at the quality of play. As individuals, the Bucs had a number of good pass rushes and when given the chance did get to Stafford. There were still problems, though. At times the Bucs lost contain on their pass rush, which led to Stafford extending plays with his legs. And at other times, pass rushers got in each other's way. The defensive line was not rushing as a whole, but as a collection of individuals. Given the fact that the four starters had never started a game together that's not surprising, and it will take time for that to grow. 

 

All that is not to say that this was a perfect showing by the defensive line. In fact, Raheem Morris singled out the nose tackles as not playing well enough against the run, and I certainly agree with that. In addition, three penalties for jumping offside hurt the team, and this needs to be fixed. But this was, as in the preseason, a promising performance that shows the Bucs have a lot of talent on the defensive line. It may just take a little time for the production to equal that talent. 

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