In April of 2011, the Buccaneers drafted Iowa DE Adrian Clayborn in the first round and immediately installed him as a starter on the right side. Clayborn had an impressive rookie season, leading the team with 7.5 sacks and at least coming close to the team’s first double-digit sack season in six years.
Simeon Rice, who had more than 10 sacks in six straight seasons from 2000-05, is the last Buccaneer pass-rusher to achieve that total, which is akin to 1,000 yards for a running back or 3,000 yards for a quarterback. Even if none of those benchmarks are necessarily indicative of a superstar, they do describe a very productive player, and they still have something of a cachet.
The Bucs may be about to break their 10-sack drought in 2012, but it won’t be Clayborn, the preseason favorite, who gets there. Clayborn landed on injured reserve after just three games, but the Bucs are getting serious production out of their other starting end, Michael Bennett.
Bennett has 5.0 sacks through seven games and is tied for 12th in the conference despite playing one fewer game than many of those listed above him. Sacks can sometimes come in spurts, even for the best pass-rushers, but if you believe in midseason projections, then Bennett is on pace for 11 of them. He doesn’t deny that he would like to achieve that milestone.
“Ten sacks is a good standard for any defensive end,” he said. “You definitely want to get up there where Simeon was and try to set the tone where he left off. That’s definitely a big goal for me.”
Rice was a three-time Pro Bowler and an outsized character, while the very even-keeled Bennett is still flying somewhat under the radar in his fourth NFL season. If he keeps it up, however, he’s going to have a much higher profile soon. Before the 2012 season began, ProFootballFocus.com called Michael Bennett a “secret superstar,” saying only Jason Pierre-Paul and Terrell Suggs did better against the run among 4-3 defensive ends last year. During the Buccaneers’ nationally-televised win over Minnesota last Thursday night, respected analyst Mike Mayock referred to Bennett as one of the most underrated defensive ends in the NFL.
It might be hard to stay “underrated” if he can join the 10-sack ranks. And Bennett thinks he’s got a good shot.
“Probably so – I feel like I am [going to make it],” he said, without a trace of cockiness. ” I feel like I’m on a good pace to get there. The more opportunities we get, the more games we play in, the more chances I get to get more.”
Bennett re-established that pace with a sack against the Vikings during what was a very strong game for him overall. He had four of his sacks in the Bucs’ first four games, then none in Games Five and Six. It’s easy to suggest, and probably accurate, that the lull came while the defensive line was working on a new approach after the loss of Clayborn.
“We kind of figured out again what we’ve got to do, switching up people,” said Bennett. “So now we’re back to where we’ve got four people going strong and it’s going pretty good.”