Buccaneers vs. Chargers: Pass pressure key to stopping Philip Rivers

Cary Emondson-US PRESSWIRE

Can the Tampa Bay Buccaneers stop star quarterback Philip Rivers? He may be struggling this season, but Rivers can still dice up any secondary - and the Bucs' pass defense has been absolutely horrendous this season.

The San Diego Chargers have arrived in town, and they'll look to feast on a weak Tampa Bay secondary. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass defense has been awful this season when facing quality quarterbacks. Over four games against what I would consider good quarterbacks (Eli Manning, Tony Romo, Robert Griffin III and Drew Brees), the Bucs have allowed 366 yards per game. The Bucs have allowed a ridiculous 7.5 net yards per pass attempt this season, 30th in the league - and that's including dominant games against luminaries Brady Quinn and Christian Ponder. Their sole saving grace has been turnovers, as they've managed to produce seven in those four games against quality competition.

And now, veteran Philip Rivers comes to town. Rivers used to be an elite quarterback, but he's struggled this season - for his standards, at least. When a quarterback is still completing 66.5% of his passes for 7.1 yards per attempt with more touchdowns than interceptions, it's hard to speak of 'struggling'. Still, Rivers' play has been far from inspiring this season: his ten interceptions and six fumbles have hurt the team's chances of winning, while his statistics conceal one large issue with the veteran quarterback: inconsistency.

Not unlike Josh Freeman, Rivers has struggled to be consistently accurate, at times simply missing throws he used to make easily. This tendency comes out most strongly under pressure - and Rivers has been under pressure quite a bit this season. He 'boasts' an obscene sack rate of 7.1% this year, with 20 sacks. According to Pro Football Focus, Rivers has been under pressure on 34.6% of drop-backs, the ninth-highest total in the NFL. That's where Tampa Bay will want to strike, especially so given the fact that left tackle Jared Gaither may very well be out for Sunday's contest.

Rivers issues under pressure are caused by a couple of things, most notably his relatively slow release and a lack of foot speed. Rivers has an excellent feel for the pocket and knows when to get rid of the ball, but because his release is among the slowest in the league he can still be caught when quicker QBs could have gotten rid of the ball. More importantly, perhaps, Rivers is slow as molasses and no good outside the pocket, which means he has precious few options when the pocket collapses.

Unfortunately, the Bucs have rather struggled to get to the passer. With just 13 sacks, they rank 25th in Football Outsiders' Adjusted Sack Rate. Despite a promising start to the season, the Bucs' pass rush has disappeared ever since losing defensive end Adrian Clayborn in week 3. Clayborn wasn't lighting the world on fire this year, but he was much better than replacement Daniel Te'o-Nesheim, who has been somewhat regularly single-blocked by tight ends. The Bucs' real pass-rushing threats are defensive end Michael Bennett and Gerald McCoy, but teams are routinely double-teaming McCoy while chipping and otherwise scheming around Bennett as well. Teams can do this because Tampa Bay has not found a way to exploit one-on-one matchups elsewhere on the line.

That hasn't been for a lack of trying. In fact, the Bucs have tried basically every single trick they could think of. They've tried many different defensive line stunts, which appear ineffective in large part because the players are absolutely terrible at executing them. They've tried blitzing relentlessly - a tactic that hasn't really worked, in part because the secondary can't hold up. They've tried various different personnel packages: Michael Bennett, Da'Quan Bowers and Daniel Te'o-Nesheim have all lined up at defensive tackle, while linebacker Dekoda Watson has been given ample opportunity at defensive end (and shown absolutely nothing in return). None of those moves have really been effective.

The return of Da'Quan Bowers from an Achilles injury two weeks ago has given the Bucs some hope that they've found at least part of an answer to their struggles, but Bowers has been disappointing. The defensive end doesn't look as explosive as he did last year, which should be no surprise given that he's only just returned from injury, but he also looks just as raw as he did last year. Rather than use his hands and try pass-rush moves, Bowers appears to just slam his body into offensive linemen, hoping to dislodge them. Due to his considerable physical gifts this actually works at times, and it prevents tight ends from effectively blocking him, but it's not a good way to get consistent pressure on the quarterback.

But Bowers is getting more snaps in every game, as he took nearly half of all defensive snaps last week. Expect that upward trend to continue, and hopefully Bowers will be able to get to the quarterback with some more consistency this week. The Bucs have primarily lined him up at right defensive end, which means he'll hopefully go up against rookie tackle Michael Harris -- and that should at least give him the opportunity to exploit his talent. But Bowers needs to develop some skill if he wants to become a productive pass rusher, and as long as he doesn't the Bucs will continue to have issues with their pass rush. And without a pass rush, you can expect Rivers to become the fifth passer to put up some big points against the Tampa Bay secondary on Sunday.

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