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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Pass rush top priority for new regime

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 10:00 PM

TAMPA You see quarterback Josh Freeman's image plastered onto everything from pocket schedules to billboards and realize the Buccaneers really mean it when they say, "It's all about 5."

Then, you look at their past two drafts.

Since selecting Freeman 17th overall in the 2009 draft, the Bucs have spent five of eight first-, second- and third-round picks, including their top two picks each year, on defensive linemen.

The pattern is proof that in a league where most everyone believes you have to have an elite quarterback to win a championship, the Bucs believe you also have to get to the quarterback.

Heading into today's season-opening game against the Detroit Lions at Raymond James Stadium, Tampa Bay's revamped pass rush is a source of optimism for the team and its 2011 season.

"Since (I've been here), that's really where our emphasis has been,'' general manager Mark Dominik said. "I really believe it is the most-improved area of the team."

Like a bad road, it was an area long in need of repair. When Dominik and coach Raheem Morris took over January 2009, the team's defensive front was made up of aging veterans such as Kevin Carter and draft-day washouts such as Gaines Adams. And it showed.

With one-time Arena League standout Stylez G. White leading the way with 6.5 sacks, the Bucs finished the 2009 season ranked tied for 26th in the 32-team league with 28 sacks. They were also last on the league against the run, allowing 158.2 yards per game.

In 2010 the situation actually worsened. Though the Bucs improved to 28th overall against the run, their sack total fell to 26, resulting in their worst two-year sack total (54) since 1994-95.

The Bucs responded by investing their first two draft picks in 2010 in tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. This year, they selected ends Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers with their first two picks.

As a result, the defensive line is among the team's youngest, and least experienced, units.

The closest thing Tampa Bay has to a seasoned veteran up front is nose tackle Roy Miller, a third-year starter out of Texas who has 17 NFL starts.

Starting left end Michael Bennett and reserves Frank Okam, Tim Crowder and Price have a total of five NFL starts, which is only eight fewer than starting second-year tackle and 2010 first-round pick Gerald McCoy. Clayborn will make his first career start against the Lions.

McCoy struggled for much of his rookie season. He missed the last three games of 2010 with a torn left biceps and the first game of this preseason with a strained right rotator cuff. Still, Dominik saw tangible improvement from McCoy and the entire line during the preseason, when Tampa Bay racked up 14 sacks, their highest preseason total since 2001.

The Bucs believe it is a sign of things to come, but not just because of the infusion of talent.

Tampa Bay also hired two new defensive line coaches during the offseason, most notably former Minnesota Vikings All-Pro Keith Millard, who holds the NFL record for sacks in a season by a defensive tackle with 18. Millard will focus on improving the pass rush while Grady Stretz, a former Arizona State assistant, will focus the rush defense.

They've already made some noticeable changes.

In an effort to get them into the opposing backfield quicker and reduce the openings for running backs, Millard and Stretz altered their linemen's stances in a way that has them more square to the line.

They've altered their attitudes, as well. As a player, Millard used to build a hatred throughout the week for anything not wearing his team's colors on game day. Now, he has the Bucs doing the same.

"He's completely changed our mentality,'' the usually congenial and mild-mannered McCoy said. "Now, it's like I hate everybody that doesn't have a Bucs jersey on. Really, that's the mentality he's given us.

"It's like, if you're not with us, you're against us. So, please, Bucs fans, even if it's one of those car air fresheners that you buy from the gas station and you put it around your neck, wear something red and pewter.''

Morris, who also serves as the defensive coordinator, wears a sly grin whenever he talks of the devastation his "youngry'' defensive line could cause this season, and the fun he'll have interchanging its versatile pieces.

"There's a lot we can do with that group,'' Morris said.

He can interchange Bennett and Bowers at the left end; Miller, Price and Okam at nose tackle, and Clayborn, Tim Crowder and outside linebacker Dekoda Watson at right end.

"We also have the luxury of moving Michael Bennett down inside, which is why I put such little emphasis on who starts for us there," Morris said. "It all depends on how we want to look that day or for that particular opponent.''

No matter the opponent, Dominik and Morris want their linemen to be nasty, physically intimidating players. They want to scare opponents the way the Bucs did when Warren Sapp, Simeon Rice and Steve White were attacking for them.

The objective was driven not so much by the past as the makeup of NFC South division opponents Atlanta, New Orleans and Carolina, which feature not only talented quarterbacks but also powerful running backs.

"We had to become more physical in the front, just because of the nature of our division,'' Dominik said. "When you see Michael Turner in Atlanta and Pierre Thomas and Chris Ivory in New Orleans and DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina, you have to be able to stop that.

"You know everybody is going to try to run the ball on you, so I think everybody's philosophy here has been, 'We've got to get better up front on defense and in particular we've got to get more physical there.'

"And, so, from the get-go here, we wanted to build a front four like we had here in the past, with guys that can not only get after the quarterback but wear an opponent down as the game goes on.

"So every year we've worked to build up that line, and we're actually feeling pretty good about the guys we've drafted and claimed from other teams and where we are. Now it's time to go see how they do.''


rcummings@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7979

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