Buccaneers pass rush could push Tampa Bay into playoff contention

Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire

TAMPA — Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp, the Buccaneers all-time single-season sack leader, was in the house for Tampa Bay’s game against Seattle at Raymond James Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

There were probably a few times when Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson wondered if Sapp had somehow worked his way back into the Buccaneers lineup as well.

The Buccaneers laid siege to Wilson on Sunday, their pass rush waking back up to score a season-high six sacks while landing 11 hits on Wilson during a surprising 14-5 victory.

Now the rest of the league is waking up to the possibility that after beating Kansas City on the road and Seattle at home, the 6-5 Buccaneers just may have the makings of a legitimate playoff threat.

They will if they can continue to generate a pass rush. That’s the one ingredient that has too often been missing from their arsenal this year. Everything else a playoff contender requires seems to be in place.

A playmaking quarterback? Check. With five games still to be played, Jameis Winton’s 44 career touchdown passes are already the sixth most ever for a quarterback during his first two years in the league.

A cache of weapons to complement the quarterback? Check. Doug Martin has yet to regain his two-time Pro Bowl form after missing six weeks with a hamstring strain but he’s a viable threat defenses have to respect.

And then there’s wide receiver Mike Evans. He passed the 1,000-yard receiving mark for the third time in as many years on Sunday and is tied with Antonio Brown for the league lead in touchdown receptions with 10.

A defense capable of taking the ball away? Check. Since the start of Week 5, the Buccaneers have recorded 18 takeaways, including three against Seattle, the most in the league over that span.

The pass rush, however, has been inconsistent. Prior to Sunday the Buccaneers had recorded three or more sacks four times but had also scored one or none four times. Finally, though, the consistency seems to be coming.

With their six sacks on Sunday, the Buccaneers have now recorded 18 in their last five games, the third-most in the league over that span and just two shy of the 20 recorded by Carolina during that period.

“All I know is they rushed the heck out of us,’’ Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said of the Buccaneers. “We’re usually on the other end of that, so that was a real oddity for us.’’

The oddity was that for the first time in franchise history, the Seahawks started three rookies across their offensive line – center Joey Hunt, left tackle George Fant and right guard Germain Ifedi.

That shouldn’t diminish the Buccaneers accomplishment, though. Tampa Bay got 1.5 sacks out of one of its own rookies, Noah Spence, and another from a second-year pro playing in only his fourth NFL game, Ryan Russell.

Besides, it wasn’t just the Seahawks rookies who the Buccaneers abused. As Winston put it, the Buccaneers pass rushers “brought it’’ so well against Seattle that third-year starter Garry Gilliam was lifted for Bradley Sowell.

“We were just doing things that we haven’t been doing before,’’ said the Buccaneers four-time Pro Bowl defensive tackle, Gerald McCoy, who had 1.5 sacks and two quarterback hits.

“Like rushing as a group,’’ added Spence, whose 5.5 sacks on the season rank second overall among all rookies to the six posted so far this year by Jaguars end Yannick Ngakoue.”

“I mean, it’s a real blessing to be working with these guys that I have here on this line. They’re always teaching me new things – even during the game sometimes – and it’s really helping me out a lot.’’

It’s Spence’s help that the Buccaneers have needed. Since Sapp was let go following the 2003 season the Buccaneers have averaged just 31 sacks per season and have exceeded the 30-sack mark just six times.

The absence of a truly elite end has been one of the problems. Not since Simeon Rice in 2005 has a single Buccaneers pass rusher, no matter his position, recorded at least 10 sacks in a season.

That mark could very well extend through this season. McCoy and Spence currently share the team lead in sacks with 5.5 each, so their chances of reaching double digits is running out.

But clearly time is starting to run out for opposing quarterbacks such as Wilson, who is one of the hardest quarterbacks to sack and had been taken down just 11 times in his previous six games prior to Sunday.

“That’s one of the things that we were worried about, because he is so hard to sack,’’ Buccaneers coach Dirk Koetter said. “And he did get out on us a few times, but we still hit him. We hit him a lot.”

“And that tells you that your coverage is good in the back end, because he’s having to hold the ball a little bit and we all know the pass rush and the coverage has to work together.”

“I mean, we’re just playing good team football right now, really good team defense. I think the defense is back. The way we played, I thought I was having flashbacks to Buccaneers teams from the past.’’

He probably wasn’t alone.

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