Three weeks after being challenged by their head coach and coordinator to produce a better pass rush, it appears Tampa Bay's defensive line is making progress.
Tampa Bay produced one of its best pass rush performances together on Sunday against Atlanta, notching five sacks, three quarterback hurries and four forced fumbles. Two of their sacks led directly to turnovers, and a hurry led to an interception.
Those three turnovers led to Buccaneers touchdowns.
After two months of hearing their head coach and defensive coordinator harp on the pass rush, this group may finally be coming together at a critical time of the season.
"I guess it took time to start gelling," defensive tackle Jovan Haye said. "But we're starting to turn the corner."
Against the Falcons the defensive line was responsible for all five sacks. White had a pair, a week after having laser eye surgery. One of White's sacks led to a fumble and touchdown return by CB Ronde Barber. The other led to an interception.
Rookie Gaines Adams has his first multi-sack game of his career, though he didn't receive his second sack until a scoring change on Wednesday credited him with a forced fumble and sack which took away Chris Hovan's first career interception. Hovan did have the other sack.
Their performance came three weeks after both head coach Jon Gruden and defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin told the defensive line they had to get more pressure as a group.
"It motivated the whole defensive line to play well," Adams said. "We all knew we needed a pass rush and it needed to get better. It's crazy how they came to us exactly at that time, so I guess it all happens for a reason. The rush is getting better."
Gruden's and Kiffin's challenge came two weeks after the Buccaneers pass rush struggled against Detroit, a sign to defensive line coach Larry Coyer that things had to change.
"It wasn't so much fun; we didn't play so well," Coyer said. "We had to face the reality that you have to get better."
Before the Arizona game, the Bucs registered 15 sacks in eight games, an anemic total for a defense that prides itself on putting pressure on the quarterback with four down linemen. Against Arizona the Bucs didn't register a sack of quarterback Kurt Warner, but they did finish with seven quarterback hurries and appeared to play with a different quality of pressure.
That became apparent in the second quarter of the Cardinals game when a four-man front put enough pressure on Warner to force him to throw an interception. Later in the second quarter Haye blasted through the middle and Adams around the left end to force Warner to unload early. The pass fell incomplete.
The rush became better as the game wore on, and the carryover was apparent against the Falcons. Leftwich was never comfortable in the pocket in his first start in a month.
The players said several factors are at work. First, it's their job and even the players in question didn't feel they were getting it done earlier this season.
"Each week we hadn't been getting the sacks we needed to or the pressure we needed to," Adams said.
Second, the Bucs had to fit together a lot of new parts. Hovan and Greg Spires (now injured) were the only holdover starters. Haye won the under tackle job and Patrick Chukwurah would have started at right end if he hadn't gotten hurt in the preseason. The Bucs added Kevin Carter in March and White in August after the end had a huge season for the Orlando Predators in the Arena Football League. Adams, the first-round pick, had spotty production until he replaced Spires in the lineup when the veteran end tore his calf against Jacksonville.
Chemistry was an issue because the Bucs, partly out of choice and partly out of health, chose to rotate their tackles and ends on a regular basis.
"I really didn't know what to expect at the start of the season," Haye said. "I hadn't played this much before."
Now, Carter said the players have a better feel for each other's strengths and weaknesses. Plus, he said players like Haye, White and Adams have fought through that so-called "rookie wall" and are beginning to turn a corner with their play.
"I think we realize how we fit together," Carter said.
Starters don't matter in this defense, Haye said. Only production. And that production is spread out among several players.
White leads the team with 4 ½ sacks. Haye has 4, Adams has 3 ½ and Carter has 2. Tampa Bay only has 20 sacks as a team, but everyone appears to be a threat.
But the most encouraging factor may be how the Bucs are achieving that pressure. White's sack that led to the Barber return came with a three-man rush. Adams' sacks came with a four-man rush. As the game went on, the Bucs relied less on a blitz that had been a major part of their defense so far this year.
Defensive line coach Larry Coyer still isn't satisfied, citing that the Bucs linemen are still struggling with play-action passing as opposed to drop-back passing.
But he believes this unit is at a crucial moment of its season.
"You can go forward and have a really good football team or you can static and it will blow up on you," Coyer said. "I believe that's where we are. I really do."
Listen to Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins every Tuesday with former Buccaneers linebacker Scot Brantley on WHBO 1470 ESPN Radio in Tampa and Clearwater from 3-6 p.m. If you miss the show, check out Bucsblitz.com's exclusive team media center for Postins' archived appearances.
Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for Bucsblitz.com and the Charlotte (Fla.) Sun-Herald. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association, and his coverage of the Buccaneers has won numerous state and national awards.