TAMPA — If the Bucs are going to turn their season around in the second half, the team’s pass defense must get better. Tampa Bay last in the league with 293.5 passing yards allowed a game, and are on pace to allow 4,700 passing yards and 38 touchdowns.
We’ve heard the reasons. The Bucs secondary is young, they’re learning on the fly. They will get better with experience.
But the one thing that can best help improve the Bucs’ pass defense over the season’s final eight regular season games is the team’s front seven getting to the quarterback more often.
The Bucs have just 19 sacks on the season, which ranks 24th in the league. They have just one game in which they’ve recorded more than three sacks.
NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett owns more than half of the team’s sacks (10 1/2 of 19), he has just 1 1/2 over the past four games. Only one player other than Barrett has more than 1 1/2 sacks this season, and that’s outside linebacker Carl Nassib. Both Nassib and rookie Anthony Nelson will miss Sunday’s home game against the Arizona Cardinals at Raymond James Stadium, leaving the Bucs without two of their top four rush ends.
Given the fact that the Bucs blitz on a league-high 51.6 percent of defensive snaps, according to Pro Football Reference. While the Bucs defensive scheme relies on rushing at least five players with regularity, they’re not getting nearly enough sacks to be productive, especially since all that pressure leaves the defensive backs out on their own in pass coverage.
In Sunday’s 40-34 overtime loss to Seattle, the Bucs blitzed on 76 percent of Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson’s dropbacks, which was the highest blitz rate in a game since NFL’s Next Gen Stats began in 2016, but pressured Wilson on just five of 35 blitz dropbacks.
“He was getting the ball out quick a lot of the time, man,” Barrett said. “We were getting after him on some plays but we didn’t get there in enough time. Maybe we affected his throws, but it was a lot of quick passes. I did not know that we were blitzing that much. I was hearing the calls, but not paying attention to how many times.”
Sunday’s game against the Cardinals offers another challenge. Arizona quarterback Kyler Murray took 20 sacks in his first four NFL games, but has been sacked just nine times over his last five games. Some of that can be attributed to gaining better pocket awareness, but the major reason is he’s getting the ball out quicker.
“I think when you have a quarterback that’s this mobile, first and [foremost], you’ve got to contain him and you’ve got to get him on the ground,” Bucs coach Bruce Arians said. “You hope to confuse him, but again, it’s a matter of just getting him on the ground and not letting him win on broken plays – make him beat us with the correct play.”
Wilson threw three of his five touchdown passes against the Bucs’ blitz last week. The Seahawks picked on rookie cornerback Jamel Dean often, but also brought in extra blockers, used play action and ran pick plays to get their receivers open quickly.
“We got tentative when he broke out of there,” Arians said. “We’re sending you, but we’re not sending you to just contain him, especially when we send everybody. We sent everybody twice and didn’t get home. That isn’t the back end’s fault – that’s the guys blitzing.”
On a first and goal from the 1, Seattle lined up two receivers next to the tight end on the right side, then ran a play-action handoff fake to the left, sending all five rushers that way as Wilson rolled right and has tight end Jacob Hollister wide open for a touchdown.
On Wilson’s two-yard touchdown pass to Tyler Lockett in the third quarter, the Bucs sent seven rushers, including both inside linebackers. Seattle had three receivers lined up to the left, and the outside two receivers ran short curl routes just past the goal line while Lockett took Dean to the corner of the end zone. Lined up from the shotgun, Wilson didn’t need much time to loft a pass where only Lockett could catch it. This Next Gen Stats graphic details the play.
Wilson’s 53-yard touchdown pass to D.K. Metcalf was the Seahawks’ longest pass play of the day and it game against the blitz. The Seahawks brought in tackle George Fant as an extra blocker next to the right tackle to double team Barrett. Running back Chris Carson was a second blocker on Jason Pierre-Paul and Vita Vea also received a double team. Metcalf lined up in the slot, got the inside on Dean on a crossing route, allowing Wilson to hit him 23 yards downfield, and Metcalf went into the end zone untouched.
Barrett said the Bucs’ front seven needs to create more pressure this week against Murray, who players said has more quickness than Wilson, to help the pass defense.
“It all goes hand in hand,” Barrett said. “We’ve got to get there because sometimes they’re going to need us and they’ve got to be back there because sometimes we’re going to need them. It’s hand in hand. We have do our job better. We know we’re going to get blocked sometimes, but we want to keep that number of times to a real low minimum.”
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.