ST. LOUIS — Only once in the past nine years have the Tampa Bay Buccaneers recorded more sacks than the 33 they have this season, yet they will go into the offseason looking, once again, for a pass rusher.
Their search might not take them far.
Though it’s still too soon to know if he can indeed be the difference-maker they’re looking for, the Bucs are starting to get excited about rookie defensive lineman William Gholston’s ability to affect the passer.
Bucs coach Greg Schiano even went so far as to suggest this week that Gholston could be one of the “pieces’’ the Bucs need to become dominant defensively. One look at what Gholston has done recently will tell you why.
In a limited role the past few weeks, Gholston has two sacks, three quarterback hits, seven quarterback hurries and three passes batted down. He’s also chipped in as a run stopper with two tackles for loss.
“He’s immensely gifted,’’ Schiano said of the 6-foot-6, 281-pound Gholston. “He’s big, he’s fast, he’s long, he’s strong — all the things you want out of a defensive end.’’
He’s young, too. The Bucs grabbed Gholston in the fourth round (126th overall) of the 2013 draft after he opted to leave Michigan State following a junior season in which he led the Spartans with 4.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss.
“His best days are clearly ahead of him,’’ Schiano said. “So what we’ve tried to do is force feed him without suffocating him. And now you can see the light going on in parts of his game.’’
That light was definitely out early in the season. Worried more about keeping his job than doing his job, Gholston said he was playing confused and that his confusion slowed him down to a point where he was largely ineffective.
The difference now, he said, is that he has developed a greater understanding of the Bucs’ defensive scheme and his role in it, and that by simply applying the techniques his coaches have taught him, he’s playing with confidence again.
“I’m extremely comfortable right now,’’ said Gholston, whose playing time should increase today because linemen Da’Quan Bowers is out with a knee injury. “I’m really playing loose.
“I still haven’t achieved all the things I want to achieve for this year, but I have reached some of the goals I set. Ultimately the goal is to be an elite-level player in this league.’’
That’s not just Gholston’s goal. It’s the Bucs’ goal, too.
Bucs safety Dashon Goldson has earned a reputation for being one of the biggest hitters in the game. He’s proud of that reputation, but would like to trade it in for something different, something more impactful.
“A lot of people ask me about those big hits,’’ Goldson said. “Well, the big hits will come. When the time comes, you take your shots. But if you can get the ball, I’d rather get the ball than anything.
”For me, it’s all about takeaways. Turnovers are always good. You always want to get the ball back and get an opportunity to score, give your offense the opportunity to get back on the field and put points on the board.’’
The Bucs enter today’s game as the second-most penalized team in the league, but it’s really not the penalties themselves that have hurt the Bucs, it’s their inability to overcome them.
Need proof? The first- and fourth-most penalized teams in the league are Seattle and Denver. At 12-2 and 11-3, respectively, the Seahawks and Broncos are also the winningest teams in the league.
That said, the team that does the best job of avoiding penalties will probably win today’s Bucs-Rams game. After Tampa Bay, which has been flagged 110 times, St. Louis ranks third in the league in penalties with 104, one more than Denver.