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Bucs need to turn up the pressure in 2020

Quarterback pressure is a major component to Todd Bowles’ defense.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers v Detroit Lions
Vita Vea will anchor the defensive line in 2020.
Photo by Jorge Lemus/NurPhoto via Getty Images

If you don’t know about the website Football Outsiders, then I highly suggest you visit it once we’re done here. They offer free advanced analytics that really help put team performance into context.

Every year, they come out with a ‘Defense by Number of Pass Rushers’ piece where they give out not only the frequency of how often teams send three, four, five, or even six-plus pass rushers, but they also give the pressure rate in those scenarios, as well.

FO released its 2020 version on Thursday and as expected, the first team I looked at was the Bucs. There were a few things that stood out, but there were also some things that I kind of expected to see.

Let’s take a look at how the Bucs did and subsequently break down the results. The first table is the average rates of NFL defenses and the second table displays how the Bucs performed on their own. Each category is split into three parts: frequency, pressure rate, and overall DVOA. They’re all rather self-explanatory, however the (5+) rushers category may seem confusing on the surface. A play is considered a blitz when you send five or more rushers, which is what the (5+) represents. FO simply combined the two categories five rushers and six-plus rushers to give an overall look at the results.

NFL Defense By Number Of Pass Rushers In 2019 (average rates)

No. of Rushers Frequency Pressure Rate DVOA
No. of Rushers Frequency Pressure Rate DVOA
3 or fewer 9% 25% 16.90%
4 65% 30% 9.70%
5 20% 41% 5.40%
6+ 5% 51% -3.40%
5+ 26% 43% 3.50%

Bucs’ Defense By Number Of Rushers In 2019

No. of Rushers Frequency Pressure Rate DVOA
No. of Rushers Frequency Pressure Rate DVOA
3 or fewer 6% (19th) 18% (28th) -6.5% (8th)
4 55% (t-3rd) 34% (t-4th) 2.2% (9th)
5 29% (t-3rd) 39% (18th) 13.9% (18th)
6+ 11% (1st) 41% (29th) 15% (18th)
5+ 40% (2nd) 39% (t-25th) 14.2% (20th)

The Bucs weren’t very effective when they blitzed

And they did it a lot, unfortunately.

Tampa Bay underwhelmed in every category outside of frequency. That’s a bit perturbing for a defense that is well-known for sending guys after the quarterback.

A lack of pass rush can really hurt Bowles’ defenses, especially when you’re not getting home on blitzes. Corners and safeties are usually left in man coverage during a blitz, therefore, the chances of them getting beat by their assignment increase exponentially when they are left on an island. That’s why you need the pass rush to get to the quarterback as much as possible.

Honestly, this wasn’t much of a surprise. The Bucs didn’t really generate much of a pass rush outside of Shaquil Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul. Remember when Barrett had nine of the Bucs’ 13 sacks through the first six games? Yea. That was pretty ugly.

It wouldn’t be a surprise if we see more guys like from the secondary or Lavonte David and Devin White used more often. David and White had under 90 total pass rush snaps each, while Sean Murphy-Bunting had the 16th-most (19) in 2019. Those numbers should increase in 2020.

But the Bucs were effective when they sent four or less rushers?

This is what surprised me. Granted, these four rushers probably consisted of Barrett, JPP, Vita Vea, and Ndamukong Suh —the Bucs’ four best pass rushers— for the most part. It would make sense if that were the case.

It also makes sense when you consider the fact that there are more players available in the secondary when you send four or less. More guys in the secondary likely means less more bodies to guard receivers. We’ve always heard how a four-man pass rush can do wonders for a defense and it’s true. Opposing offenses are going to have a very difficult time if you can create pressure with four guys.

The Bucs also had a top-10 overall DVOA when sending four or less, so that also backs up the idea that more players in the secondary means a better overall defensive performance.

I’m now wondering this: If the Bucs were successful when sending four or less rushers last year, will they lean more that way in 2019 now that the secondary has a full year of experience in Bowles’ system under their belt(s)? Or will better corners and safeties create a desire for Bowles to ramp the pressure up even more?

What it all means

No matter how you slice it, the Bucs need to step up the pressure. As good as Barrett was last year, you can’t expect him to reach 19.5 sacks again. Granted, a healthy JPP for all 16 games may offset Barrett’s likely dip, but JPP missed six games last year and recently had surgery on his knee. If I were the Bucs, I’d be happy if he could just make it through an entire season with no issue(s) at this point.

Yes, the Bucs had 47 sacks last year, but they also had just a 6.7% adjusted sack rate, which was 20th in the league and below the league average of 7%. They may be a top-5 team in terms of pressures, but as you can see, that’s because they blitzed so often. It’s only natural that you’ll eventually get where you want to go if you keep trying.

For a quick example, let’s look at Barrett. Per Sports Info Solutions, Barrett had the sixth-most pass rush snaps in 2019 (460) and the sixth-highest pressure percentage (19.2%). That’s a good mark, but when you look at guys like Cameron Jordan, T.J. Watt, and Nick Bosa you’ll see that they had fewer rushes but posted a higher pressure rate.

Vea’s development is what could curb all of this talk and put the Bucs on the right path in terms of pressuring the quarterback. If he takes the next step, then we are talking about a dominant interior presence that will undoubtedly free up space for others to make plays. And this is in a one-gap, penetrating defense, which will be fun to watch. But again, like JPP, Vea has had injury issues himself. He’s missed four games in two years (even if they were all in his rookie year) and has yet to complete a full training camp.

Tampa Bay also needs the depth guys to step up. The issue is, most of the depth has spotty experience, at best. Kevin Minter and Rakeem Nunez-Roches are the only depth players on the first and second level of the defense with any proven ability to get to the quarterback. That must change this year.

The good thing is that all of this surrounds Bowles, who is one of the most creative defensive minds in the NFL. There’s little doubt that he will be able to generate pressure across the board, but execution will ultimately define the outcome.

You can check out the whole Football Oustider’s article here.