TAMPA — The Tampa Bay Buccaneers spent some serious money to upgrade a secondary that was routinely torched last season.
A pair of All-Pro defensive backs arrived in the spring as Tampa Bay signed free agent safety Dashon Goldson and traded for cornerback Darrelle Revis.
But when it comes to finding a remedy for a dismal pass rush, Bucs coaches enter the 2013 season relying on faith rather than past performance.
The Bucs have gone five seasons without reaching the 30-sack plateau, and a young defensive line is determined to prove it can excel at both run and pass defense this fall.
“If I had to use one word to say how I think the front four will play this season, the word would be ‘dominant,’ ” Bucs third-year defensive end Da’Quan Bowers said. “I think we have a dominant defensive line, and we’ve worked very hard to become one of the focal points of this team.’’
The quest for respect begins Sunday at Met Life Stadium, where the Bucs face rookie quarterback Geno Smith and a Jets offense that lacks dynamic weapons.
In the two subsequent weeks, Tampa Bay’s revamped defensive line must gear up for two of the NFL’s premier quarterbacks: Drew Brees of New Orleans and New England’s Tom Brady.
“Any great defense has to start up front,’’ said fourth-round draft pick Akeem Spence, who has won Tampa Bay’s starting nose tackle job as a rookie. “We’ve got to make teams one-dimensional and then go after the quarterback. I’m here to do the grimy work.’’
The Bucs led the league last season in run defense, but a lack of pressure up front was a key factor as opponents completed 69 passes of 20 yards or more. Tampa Bay’s pass defense ranked last in the league and came within 38 yards of matching the worst in NFL history.
Brees was sacked once in 76 pass attempts last season as the Saints swept the Bucs.
“The results weren’t what we wanted,’’ said former NFL linebacker Bryan Cox, in his second season as Tampa Bay’s pass rush coach. “Still, there were some good things to build on.’’
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is the anchor of a unit that also features the return of right end Adrian Clayborn from a knee injury that sidelined him for the final 13 games in 2012. On the left side, high-motor plugger Daniel Te’o-Nesheim has beaten out Bowers as a starter.
Backups include Gary Gibson, Trevor Scott, Derek Landri and three rookies.
“I think the nice thing now is we’ve got some depth,’’ said defensive coordinator Bill Sheridan. “We can rotate guys through, and I think all of those guys have some natural pass rush ability. I’m anticipating a much better pass rush.’’
But as coach Greg Schiano likes to say, until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it.
The 11 defensive linemen on Tampa Bay’s roster have combined for 52.5 NFL sacks. That’s less than half the career total of veteran defensive ends John Abraham (122.0) and Dwight Freeney (107.5), who were available in free agency, along with Osi Umenyiora (75.0).
Michael Bennett, who led the Bucs with nine sacks last year, was signed by Seattle as a free agent, and Bowers hasn’t impressed coaches enough to fill Bennett’s vacancy.
“We have to set the tone, or all the talent behind us won’t matter,’’ said McCoy, whose five sacks may be a tantalizing taste of what’s to come. “It starts with me being the leader up front. If I get rolling, everybody gets rolling. I take it on myself to bring everybody with me ... then our secondary can flourish. It starts with us.’’
The presence of Revis and Goldson in the secondary could give Sheridan added confidence to order up more elaborate blitz packages, but Tampa Bay was generally ineffective last year when sending additional rushers.
The focus remains on a front four that will try to hunt down the mobile Smith on Sunday. Bowers might well be the key.
In the spring, Schiano challenged Bowers to produce a double-digit sack season. Noting Bowers’ new place on the depth chart, Schiano said he can still be a vital aspect of Tampa Bay’s pass rush.
“As a colllective group, once everyone’s talents come together, it’s going to be special for us this year,’’ said Bowers, who led the nation with 15.5 sacks at Clemson in 2010. “Dominant is a strong word to use, but I believe it’s the right one for our guys up front.’’