TAMPA, Fla. -- Through three games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have 12 sacks, which is third most in the league. They also have a 56.3% pass rush win rate -- second best in the NFL -- and an 18.6% opposing quarterback contact rate that’s fifth best in the league.
What’s allowing defensive coordinator Todd Bowles' pass rush to have this kind of success? A few different things, but it starts with a healthy front seven. Here’s a closer look at what's been clicking ahead of the Bucs hosting the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday (1 p.m. ET, CBS).
It’s a matter of ‘pick your poison’
Don’t underestimate the sheer impact of good health. Last season, linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul was sidelined until Week 8, recovering from fractured vertebrae in his neck. Defensive tackle Vita Vea missed the 2019 preseason with a sprained lateral collateral ligament in his left knee. Vea had also missed all of training camp and the first three games of the 2018 season with a calf injury. Inside linebacker Devin White was recovering from severe tonsillitis and a sprained medial collateral ligament and really didn’t have his legs under him until about Week 9.
Just the presence of Vea (6-foot-4, 347 pounds), along with Ndamukong Suh, creates opportunities. He’s not only colossal in size -- he’s got a heck of a get-off. He has been double-teamed 42 times this year, with Suh seeing double-teams 39 times.
Of the Bucs' 12 sacks -- 11 of which came in the past two games -- six have come with Vea being double-teamed (four against the Broncos alone) and five have come with Suh being double-teamed.
“I think Todd [Bowles] is doing a great job of putting players in position to get good matchups,” coach Bruce Arians said. Will Gholston’s got sacks, Vita’s got sacks, Suh’s got sacks, both outside ‘backers, inside ‘backers and safeties [have sacks]. It’s a matter of pick your poison [and] who you want to try to block, because somebody’s coming from somewhere.”
Bowles gets everyone involved
It’s not just the front seven responsible for creating pressure. On half of the plays in which the Bucs have gotten a sack, at least one defensive back was rushing the passer.
On Winfield’s sack against the Broncos, Pierre-Paul was essentially a decoy, occupying the tight end’s attention on Jeff Driskel’s right side but not actually rushing the QB. On Driskel’s right side, running back Melvin Gordon failed to account for Winfield coming off the edge, and Winfield notched his second sack in two weeks. Like in the previous week, Winfield’s sack came on a play-action fake -- the quarterback's back was completely to Winfield, Gordon’s eyes were looking forward, and they were both preoccupied with faking the handoff. Bowles has blitzed a DB in these instances a few times this season, and understandably so.
“Todd Bowles does a great job of getting everybody a piece of the ball -- see the ball and go get it,” Pierre-Paul said. “I just think guys just trust him. We trust the plays that he’s going to call [and] he’s going to get us what we need to get. So far, he’s getting us one step closer to where we need to get.”
On Shaquil Barrett’s safety against the Broncos, the Bucs rushed five, with White rushing the A-gap. White powered his way past Gordon, and while he didn’t bring Driskel down, he got him completely off his spot. Barrett faked like he was coming off the edge but looped inside to swipe away Lloyd Cushenberry III for the safety.
Getting Barrett inside is one thing the Bucs can do if he starts seeing more double-teams, as he has had success against guards and centers. In fact, Barrett has never had lower than a 50% pass rush win rate since joining the Bucs when going against interior offensive linemen. This doesn’t mean he’s getting a sack each time, but merely that he’s winning his rep.
Creating the illusion of pressure
It’s not always blitzing, though. Sometimes it’s creating the illusion of pressure, as Bowles has talked about, utilizing the zone blitz and forcing quarterbacks to guess who will rush and who will drop back into coverage. Or it's executing stunts and twists to create confusion on assignments. On one particular pass play against the Broncos, the Bucs had Barrett and Anthony Nelson lined up on the edges, with Rakeem Nunez-Roches and Suh lined up inside and White and Lavonte David directly behind Nunez-Roches and Suh. Nelson and Barrett dropped into coverage, and the remaining four rushed the QB, with the ultra-quick White and David crisscrossing to attack the inside and force a hurried throw by Driskel that was well short of the first-down marker.
“It helps a bunch,” safety Mike Edwards said. “The rush complements the coverage and the coverage complements the rush. I just feel like we have one of the best rushes in football. Our pass-rushers are crazy.
"Us in the back end, we know they’re going to get to the quarterback real soon, especially when we have a blitz on there. It definitely helps us, so we don’t have to cover that long, and the ball is coming out really fast.”
They’ve also faced weak and mediocre offensive lines, as the Broncos have already given up 13 sacks so far this season (one of which knocked Drew Lock out of the Steelers game) and the Panthers have given up eight. What will be most telling is when the Green Bay Packers come to town in Week 6 -- they’ve given up only two sacks this season, while the Bucs' Week 7 opponent, the Las Vegas Raiders, have given up five.
How can they build on their success?
The Chargers (1-2) and rookie quarterback Justin Herbert turned the ball over three times in a loss to the Panthers last week, which should bode well for the Bucs in their second home game of the season Sunday, assuming they attack him properly. Both of Herbert’s sacks against the Panthers came on four-man pressures, as did one of his interceptions. The same thing for both of Herbert’s sacks and one of his picks against the Kansas City Chiefs in Week 2. In fact, Herbert has done very well against the blitz (he made a heck of a play against an all-out blitz to find Austin Ekeler on a wheel route, and he had a 19-yard completion to Hunter Henry, using a jump-pass to buy Henry just a bit more time. He’s got a 71.4% completion percentage against the blitz, just behind Patrick Mahomes.
After that, the Bucs have a daunting three-game stretch against the Bears (3-0), Packers (3-0) and Raiders (2-1). The defense will have to take things up a notch. Last season, Bowles was limited in how much he could implement disguises because he was installing a new defense and had so many young players on the back end. His goal for the defense this offseason was to get better there with players such Sean Murphy-Bunting getting pointers in practice from Tom Brady on how not to tip his hand.
“I mean, we’re ahead of last year just because of the experience, but that doesn’t make us experts by [any] means,” Bowles said. “We just have to continue to keep working, keep trusting each other and keep playing off each other. I think if they do that, they’ll be fine.”
The better they can get at their disguises, the better chance they have to freeze a quarterback like Aaron Rodgers up in the pocket and buy time.