Gruden still wants improved rush

Eleven sacks through six games isn't enough for a Buccaneers defensive line, Jon Gruden said earlier this week. And he's right, players and coaches agree. And against the pass-happy Lions on Sunday, everyone knows the rush needs to be better — and that starts up front.

Jon Gruden won't back off his stance that the Buccaneers must have a better pass rush to contend in the NFC South this season.

Not even after the defensive line sacked Tennessee's Vince Young and Kerry Collins three times last week, a season high.

Not even after the defensive line pressured Young and Collins nine times last week, also a season high.

"Our pass rush is not good enough," Gruden said after Sunday's win over Tennessee. "I've been saying that since training camp. Today clearly we had numerous opportunities, and not just in passing situations, to close the door. Our players understand and recognize and feel the same way — we need to pick it up there, or these quarterbacks are going to be too good for us to stop."

Defensive end Greg Spires agreed, though he pointed out the standard set by previous defenses makes satisfying Gruden almost impossible.

"We can't do enough of that," Spires said. "We definitely need more sacks, more pressures. Even if we had eight sacks last week, we would need more."

A pass rush is imperative this week against the Detroit Lions (3-2), a team that runs a similar offense to the "Greatest Show on Turf" St. Louis Rams of the late 1990s. That's no surprise. Mike Martz, the architect of that offense, is the Lions' offensive coordinator. He also imported Shaun McDonald from St. Louis as the Lions' No. 4 receiver.

The Lions are fifth in the NFL in passing offense, ninth in points scored and have scored at least 35 points twice in five games.

Defensive line coach Larry Coyer has faced a Martz-coached offense many times, and he knows what Martz is capable of doing.

"Wide open," Coyer said of the Lions' offense. "I don't like this week, to be honest with you. He's (Martz) wide open, now. This guy is brilliant in my mind. He knows how to move people around and he knows how to deliver the football. He never gives in and he's never out of a game. The first time we played him, they shifted and we got out of breath on the shift."

Why is Gruden concerned?

The Buccaneers are 22nd in the NFL in sacks per pass play. In overall sacks the Bucs are 17th with 11. Both are middling numbers for a defense that prides itself on reaching the quarterback without the benefit of a regular blitz package. In fact, the entire Cover 2 defense is predicated on being able to rush without a blitz.

Without it, defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin must commit linebackers and defensive backs to the blitz, leaving the rest of the back seven in single coverage.

That's exactly how the Colts scored their final touchdown pass in the fourth quarter two weeks ago. Quarterback Peyton Manning exploited a six-man blitz and hit Reggie Wayne on a slant for a touchdown.

That's why Gruden harps on the pass rush — even though the defensive line had its best game of the season last Sunday, Coyer said.

Jovan Haye and Kevin Carter had back-to-back sacks in the fourth quarter against Tennessee, a sequence that took the Titans out of field goal range in a 10-3 game. Rookie Gaines Adams had the third sack, though it resulted from Adams touching Young down after he collided with running back LenDale White and fell behind the line of scrimmage.

When the Buccaneers released Simeon Rice in July, they committed to creating a rotation of defensive linemen that could pressure the quarterback, as opposed to building a line around an elite end. While the total statistics aren't compelling, the distribution of sacks is encouraging.

Eight different Bucs have at least one sack this season, and seven of them are linemen. The leader is under tackle Jovan Haye with three sacks, and that's close to matching the production of last year's starters, Anthony McFarland and Ellis Wyms. Two rookies have sacks, including tackle Greg Peterson, who has 1 ½ sacks. Veterans Carter (1 ½) and Spires (1) have as many as free agent additions Patrick Chukwurah (1) and Greg White (1).

Is this a good thing? Defensive line coach Larry Coyer said yes.

"I think it is encouraging that we're able to do that," Coyer said. "I am really pleased that we have a lot of guys that can make plays. That's a step in the right direction."

Tampa Bay has also been successful in mixing up defensive looks up front. Tackle Chris Hovan has lined up at both inside positions. Adams has lined up at both end positions. Carter, considered an end by many scouts, recorded his sack on Sunday from the inside.

But the Bucs are on pace for fewer than 30 sacks this season, partly because they lack that one explosive pass rusher that forces defenses to double team.

So how do you compensate? Coyer said it's time for a player or two on defense to step up and assume Rice's role.

"Tampa has been famous for those types of players, whether it be (Warren) Sapp or (Simeon) Rice, you're talking about special guys," Coyer said. "But that's the heritage and somebody has to step up and become that kind of guy."

The Buccaneers managed 25 sacks a year ago after averaging 40.4 sacks from 2001-05. No coach measures a team's pass rush purely by sacks, but the pace is probably what discourages Gruden most of all about the unit's progress.

An improved pass rush could only help the Buccaneers' secondary this week against the Lions and quarterback Jon Kitna, whom Coyer said would throw "45 or 55 times, whatever it takes to win."

"It makes it a whole lot easier," cornerback Phillip Buchanon said of a solid pass rush. "I experienced that at the University of Miami."

But no one is confusing Tampa Bay's front four with those great Miami front fours right now.


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 and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.


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