They're growing up front

Tampa Bay's pass rush last season was dismal. It ranked No. 30 in the NFL with just 25 sacks. But head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin arent' just focused on sacks. They want more pressure on the quarterback. During this offseason the Bucs have identified one way to do that — find taller defensive linemen.

Don't be surprised if the Tampa Bay defensive line looks taller this season.

It's quite possibly by design.

The additions of Kevin Carter, Gaines Adams, Ryan Sims and Greg Peterson have not only created a glut of talent on the defensive line — the Buccaneers will carry 13 linemen into its mandatory mini-camp June 19-21 — it's also elevated the overall height of the defensive line.

The Bucs are no longer shrimps on the front four. Six players are 6-foot-4 or taller, and the overall height of the defensive line rotation is an inch taller than a year ago.

Head coach Jon Gruden believes the additional height can be a tool to create more pressure on opposing quarterbacks this season.

"(For) teams that are throwing the ball quick against the blitz and creating five-step drops, tipped passes are a real problem," Gruden said recently. "You can ask me all about that."

Gruden was naturally referring to backup quarterback Chris Simms' problems with tipped passes the past two seasons, most of which came on those short drops. Perhaps his quarterback's struggles influenced Tampa Bay's personnel decisions this offseason? Or maybe it was just the defense's No. 30 ranking in quarterback sacks a year ago.

The defensive line will be taller in 2007, and it's part of a growing trend that began last year.

At the end of the 2005 season, the average height of the line was 6-2, and just one player — Simeon Rice — tipped in at 6-4 or taller. In fact, three of the linemen — including current starting left end Greg Spires — were just 6-1 or shorter.

The makeover began in October of last year. Anthony McFarland's trade (he's just 6-0) opened up roster space for 6-2 Jovan Haye. Tackle Darrell Campbell (6-4) joined the roster during the season, thanks to injuries. The pair pushed the rotation's overall height to 6-2 ½, but just Rice and Campbell were 6-4 or taller.

This offseason the rotation's height took a quantum leap. Carter (6-6) signed as a free agent. Adams (6-5) was selected in the first round. Peterson (6-5) was selected in the fifth round. Former Chiefs tackle Ryan Sims (6-4) came to Tampa Bay in a trade. And the Bucs signed North Dakota State lineman Justin Frick (6-3) as an undrafted free agent.

Now the defensive line's overall height is 6-3 ½. Four players are 6-5, and another two are 6-4. It's a good bet that at least four of them will make the team, either on the final 53-man roster or on the practice squad.

Defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin and Gruden have both said that the emphasis this season isn't necessarily on increasing the Bucs' sack total from a year ago (just 25), but on creating more pressure in the pocket.

"Sometimes the best pass defense is a deflection and guys that are 6-5 (can do that)," Gruden said. "Kevin Carter has a history and a knack for batting balls down. You can ask (cornerback) Sam Madison, some of the former Dolphins cornerbacks that were recipients of interceptions or deflections. We would like to create more pass disruption from our front as well as our coverage."

The Bucs do not keep a "tipped passes" statistic, but they do keep passes defended. The defensive line had 10 passes defended in 2005 (Rice led with five) and eight in 2006 (Dewayne White, who is 6-2, had five). Carter has only been credited with six passes defended since 2002.

Gruden appears sold on Carter's possible impact on the defensive line, which is why the Bucs are working Carter at both defensive end and tackle.

"Carter is an integral part of this because he brings a joker mentality to the table," new defensive line coach Larry Coyer said.

The added height should also increase the versatility of the defensive line. One could easily imagine an alignment with the 6-5 Rice on the right, the 6-5 Adams on the left and the 6-6 Carter at under tackle next to 6-2 Chris Hovan.

Under tackle is where this emphasis on height could have the biggest impact. McFarland manned the position until his trade last year, and then Ellis Wyms (6-3) and Haye shared time. The use of Carter, Sims or Peterson at the position could make life more difficult for opposing quarterbacks on underneath routes. Imagine trying to thread the football around Carter's massive paw of an arm.

Come September, that will likely be a reality.

Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association. Included among his more than two dozen writing and editing awards are national awards from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors, and state awards from the Florida Press Club and the Florida Sports Writers Association, for his coverage of the Buccaneers since 2004.


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