TAMPA, FL - OCTOBER 3: Defensive lineman Michael Bennett #71 of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers tackles quarterback Curtis Painter #7 of the Indianapolis Colts October 3, 2011 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)
The most important part of any defense is the pass rush. Just ask the New York Giants, who have won two Super Bowls over the past five years on the back of their dominant pass rush. In a pass-happy NFL where disrupting the pass is the first thing most defenses worry about, this should be obvious. And yet, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers appear to be the only team to view the NFL this way in the NFC South.
The Bucs have invested heavily in their defensive line over the past seasons. Since 2009, they've invested two first-round draft picks and two second-round draft picks on their defensive line. This season, they've added former first-rounder Amobi Okoye. And let's not forget about undrafted free agent Michael Bennett, who has turned out to be a real diamond in the rough. Given that investment, the Bucs may have the most talented defensive line in the NFL. That kind of investment hasn't turned into production yet, but every one of those players has flashed his talent in recent years. Health is now the most important component for this group.
But somehow, the New Orleans Saints, the Atlanta Falcons and the Carolina Panthers don't seem to view the NFL this way. All three of those teams seem to collect run-stopping defensive linemen, and each of them has only one competent pass-rusher: Will Smith for the Saints, Charles Johnson for the Panthers and John Abraham for the Atlanta Falcons.
Those three players don't exactly represent a future force in the division, either. John Abraham and Will Smith are both over 30 years old and appear to be rapidly nearing the end of their productive NFL careers. Smith hasn't topped 7 sacks since 2009, while Abraham is coming off a 9.5 sack season - but that was a season that saw his snaps severely limited in an effort to keep him healthy and fresh. When teams start doing that, you know the end is near - as if his age wasn't enough of an indicator.
And despite that, all three of those teams produced more sacks the past seasons than Tampa Bay did. How? Blitzes and leads. All three of those teams had fairly high-powered offenses that forced their opponents to pass often. And lots of passes lead to lots of opportunities for sacks - which is not a luxury the Bucs had last season. More importantly, the Falcons and Saints saw their star pass rushers stay healthy, while the Bucs' defensive line was hit with several injuries. Experience doesn't hurt, which the Bucs surely lack. Finally, the New Orleans Saints only goal on defense seemed to be to pressure the quarterback, at times. In addition to handing out bounties, Gregg Williams loved to blitz. A lot. Expect that tendency to decline under new coordinator Steve Spagnuolo. The Falcons seem to be getting ready to blitz a lot more, though.
The NFL is all about pressure on defense, and the Bucs are in prime position to dominate the division at least in that one area. For that, they need the remaining defensive linemen to stay healthy and productive. Gerald McCoy can't tear his biceps again, Brian Price needs to regain his explosion and strength, Amobi Okoye must be the productive backup he can be, Adrian Clayborn needs to continue to build on his strong rookie year, and Michael Bennett must become more consistent as a pass rusher. The talent to dominate is there, now the production needs to follow.