In 2009 the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive line looked nothing like their great line from earlier in the decade. They had 10 different players with at least 100 snaps. Of those 10, only two had positive run defense ratings and only two had positive pass rush ratings.
In 2010 they began their remodeling of the unit by drafting new starting interior linemen in the first two rounds, Gerald McCoy and Brian Price. The following year the focus went to the outside of the line as defensive ends Adrian Clayborn and Da’Quan Bowers were drafted. They also added four defensive linemen in free agency this spring, so the line will look almost completely different from what it was just three years ago.
However, there is one player who was on that 2009 line that will definitely make the 53 man roster. Michael Bennett went undrafted in 2009, but has worked his way up the Buccaneers’ depth chart and, in 2011, put together one of the greatest games by a defensive player we’ve seen. He was one of the very few bright spots on a defense that needs to get better in order for Tampa Bay to be competitive in 2012.
Rise to a Starting Role
Michael Bennett was a rookie free agent addition to the Seattle Seahawks in 2009 after playing at Texas A&M and was one of 11 defensive linemen to make the 53-man roster to begin the season. When October rolled around, the need for offensive line depth led to Bennett being waived and then picked up by Tampa Bay. Seattle had tried to use him as a defensive tackle, but the Buccaneers moved him back to his college position, defensive end. He instantly received a ration of snaps, spelling starters so that they could be fresher later in the game. In his 157 plays as a rookie, he had five overall pressures. He also had four stops, all coming from a game against the Packers.
Over the first three games of the 2010 season, he was on the active roster but not on the game day roster. From Week 5 to Week 9 he played 30.9% of snaps, which increased to 56.8% of snaps from Week 10 to Week 15. In Week 13 against the Falcons and Week 14 against the Redskins, he showed a constant ability to push run blockers into the back field to either make the tackle, or give his teammates the ability to make a stop. Over that time he had four stops, and a run defense rating of +3.7.
At the end of the season, the Buccaneers–recognizing Bennett’s strong play as well as a decline in Stylez G. White’s–gave Bennett the start and he played 74.8% of snaps in the final two games. Although Tampa Bay drafted Clayborn and Bowers, Bennett kept his starting job at left defensive end to begin the 2011 season.
A Monday Night to Remember
In the Week 4 game against the Colts, Bennett did as much to put the game into his own hands as any defensive end could. After helping his teammate make a tackle for a loss on the first drive, he made his biggest play on the second drive. He went unblocked by the right tackle and sprinted to the quarterback faster than the halfback could pick him up. Bennett proceeded to record a sack, force a fumble, and recover the fumble he just caused.
In the second quarter he continued his strong play with a tackle for a loss, a tackle for no gain, and helped the running back run straight into Gerald McCoy for a 4-yard loss. In the third quarter, he had another tackle for a short gain and a successful bull rush. The Colts were forced to turn to the pass late in the game as the ground game was largely unproductive. Over the last 15 pass plays, Bennett recorded a sack, a hit and two pressures. This resulted in a +11.6 overall rating for the game.
Improving Across the Board
In his first two years Bennett showed signs of being a good player in the run game, but in 2011 he was able to string together multiple solid plays in the same game rather than just making a play or two here and there.
Bennett is a perfect example of why we grade players in addition to keeping track of various other statistics. He finished tied with Leger Douzable for the 10th-highest Run Stop Percentage for 4-3 defensive ends at 8.6%. While that hints at his talent, it doesn’t tell the whole story. Bennett does an excellent job at pushing the man blocking him back and disrupting the play so the running back has to alter his path. This gives his teammates the opportunity to make the play and get the glory. Among 4-3 defensive ends over the course of the season, only Jason Pierre-Paul and Terrell Suggs had better run defense ratings than Bennett.
In 2010, Bennett managed just one sack and 16 hurries in his 263 pass rushes. The Buccaneers draft picks showed they were looking to upgrade their pass rushing, but they may not have expected Bennett to also be one of the solutions to the problem. In 2011 he increased his pass rushing snaps to 336, but also increased his sack total to four, his hit total to six and his hurries to 28. The teams overall sack numbers dropped in 2011 fro the previous season, but that was because the blitzing linebackers couldn’t get to the quarterback nearly as often as they should have.
Late in the season, Bennett missed two games with a groin injury, and also showed up on the injury report with a toe injury. That didn’t slow him at all, with two sacks, a hit, and six pressures in the Buccaneers’ last three games. His improved pass rushing can allow Bennett to be a three-down player rather than just an excellent run stopper.
Looking to 2012 and Beyond
While the Buccaneers brought in the pair of rookie ends a year ago and have added Wallace Gilberry and Jayme Mitchell, they still clearly have Bennett in their plans. Clayborn, Bowers, and Gilberry are all more geared to be pass rushers than run defenders, so even if everyone is healthy we should see Bennett on most run downs. Due to the injury to Bowers (torn Achilles), Bennett could see even more playing time than his 630 snaps from last year.
This line has come a long way from where it was three years ago–thanks in part to Bennett’s contribution–and it should just keep improving as Bennett and the young additions come into their own.