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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Expectations high for new Bucs DE Johnson

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— On the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ roster sheet, defensive end Michael Johnson is listed at 270 pounds.

On the football scale, he’s packing considerably more weight.

The free-agent signee from Cincinnati might hold the key to Tampa Bay’s defensive fortunes in his 6-foot-7 frame.

The Bucs haven’t featured a double-digit sacker since Simeon Rice posted 14 takedowns in 2005, which happens to be the last time Tampa Bay led the NFL in total defense. Two years removed from registering 11½ sacks for the Cincinnati Bengals, Johnson is expected to provide heat off the right edge.

“Having a good pass rush could change this whole team,” said Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who will line up inside Johnson’s left shoulder. “Michael Johnson brings something we haven’t had around here in a long time, and that’s a very dominant, complete defensive end.”

Johnson, 27, saw his sack total plunge to 3½ last year as standout defensive tackle Geno Atkins missed Cincinnati’s final seven games with a torn ACL. Still, the Bengals ranked No. 3 in yards allowed and Johnson remained active enough to be a primary target for the Bucs when free agency opened in March.

Tampa Bay blitzed frequently during last year’s 4-12 debacle, partly because of design and partly out of necessity.

Outside linebacker Lavonte David finished second to McCoy with seven sacks, but new coach Lovie Smith is returning to the franchise’s Tampa 2 roots — where the front four is almost entirely responsible for pressuring quarterbacks.

“We didn’t bring Michael here to be a role player, a guy who can play the run,” Smith said. “Those are important things, but he needs to be able to rush the passer. He needs to beat left tackles one-on-one. In order for us to have success, our defensive line has to perform a certain way.”

Johnson shrugs off any suggestion he has a lot to live up to. But that five-year, $44 million contract, which includes $24 million in guaranteed money, has ramped up pressure on a man expected to apply pressure.

“I’m just out here working as hard as I can, trying to take this defense to the next level,” he said. “It’s all about finishing. You can go out and rush your tail off the whole game and come out with nothing — or you can fall into one (sack) or two. You’ve got to keep coming and have a short memory.”

The acquisition of Johnson prompted the Bucs to shift fourth-year defensive end Adrian Clayborn to the left side. Smith is challenging both Johnson and Clayborn to meet at the quarterback, a dream scenario that would make McCoy even more disruptive.

“Just looking at his record, Michael Johnson has already done some great things in his career,” Clayborn said. “I think he’ll help a lot, bringing a whole different element to the defensive line that we haven’t had around here. He’s a great guy who fits right in. Coach Smith is counting on the guys up front to beat their blocks, and we’re going to roll with it.”

From a distance, Johnson’s hulking frame bears some resemblance to Rice, a three-time Pro Bowler who ranks 15th on the NFL’s all-time list with 122 sacks.

The Bucs would settle for a reasonable facsimile.

“Michael can rush the passer, he can play the run, he can drop into coverage ... he can do everything you need him to do,” McCoy said. “When you’ve got a guy that dynamic who can play that well, it opens it up for everyone else.”

In evaluating Johnson, Smith said he tended to dwell on the dominant form he displayed for the Bengals in 2012.

“I wasn’t paying a whole lot of attention about what was going on last year, when I was down at the beach at Redington Shores,” said Smith, referring to his season away from the NFL after his dismissal as coach of the Bears.

“I look at the ceiling — what’s the best a player has played? Michael is a legitimate outside rusher.”

And if Tampa Bay’s new defensive catalyst doesn’t rack up sacks from the start, he will remain patient.

“I heard somebody say that you can rush 60 times, lose 58 and win two, and suddenly you’re the man,” Johnson said with a grin. “Our goal is to be the top defense in the league. We’ve got the talent and we’ve got the coaching. This scheme allows me to be more aggressive on the edge and get upfield more. I’m here to do whatever they ask me to do.

“We’re D-linemen. That’s what we do. We rush.”

ikaufman@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7833

Twitter: @IKaufmanTBO

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