Despite giving up 381 passing yards to a rookie, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers pass rush may have had the best game of the season. The Bucs recorded a ridiculous 6 sacks and an insane 13 official quarterback hits. Those 'hits' are only counted when the quarterback is taken to the ground, and don't include the times Nick Foles was rushed or hit without going to the ground.
All of this can, in large part, be attributed to the return of defensive end Da'Quan Bowers from an Achilles injury he suffered during the offseason. Since coming back in week 8, Bowers has managed two sacks over 7 games. That's not an overly impressive tally, but the former second-round pick has done wonders for the team's pass rush. In Bowers, the Bucs have a defensive end who can consistently beat left and right tackles, and when paired with Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett the Bucs have a formidable threesome of defensive linemen.
To illustrate Bowers' impact on the pass rush, we need only look at the sack numbers since his return. Before Bowers' return, the Bucs managed just eight sacks in six games, good for just over one sack per game. That's a pathetic tally, and it would have seen the Bucs end the season with 21 sacks. What's worse, seven of those eight sacks came in the first three weeks, when former first-round pick Adrian Clayborn was not yet sidelined by a knee injury. When the Bucs were without both Bowers and Clayborn, they managed just one sack in three games.
Yet since Bowers' return to the lineup, the team has managed 16 sacks over seven games, nearly doubling their production. The team was held without a sack in just one game, and that happened when they faced notoriously hard-to-sack Peyton Manning. More impressively, perhaps, the Bucs have done this despite a secondary that struggles to hold up against any quarterback for more than a few seconds.
Having a quality pass-rusher at right defensive end has helped the Bucs tremendously. Sure, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim hasn't been terrible and Aaron Morgan has flashed some speed off the edge in the past few games, but they don't compare to Bowers, supposedly in the running for the first overall pick in 2011 at one point. Nor do they compare with first-round pick Adrian Clayborn.
The key isn't even the amount of sacks those players put up, but the attention they demand from offensive lines. Gerald McCoy and Michael Bennett are tremendous players and Bennett especially has done a good job as a pass-rusher, but without a real pass-rushing threat at right defensive end could easily concentrate on those two players. Roy Miller, Gary Gibson, Daniel Te'o-Nesheim -- those players don't scary anyone. As a result, teams were routinely double-teaming McCoy while using slides and chips to help stop Bennett.
When Da'Quan Bowers or Adrian Clayborn is on the field, teams can't leave them single-blocked consistently. They can't use tight ends to tie them up, as opposing teams have done to Te'o-Nesheim. That's when they and the rest of the defensive line can shine, and getting those players fully healthy will be extremely important for this defense.
What's more impressive, perhaps, is that Bowers isn't at full strength yet. He's not starting, despite being a better player than Te'o-Nesheim and his snaps are limited because he's still recovering from that Achilles injury. That, at least, is what Pro Football Weekly's sources say. If Bowers can get back to full strength, play more than 50% of the team's snaps, and he can improve along the way - the Bucs will have a terrifyingly good defensive line.