When Lovie Smith and Jason Licht took over the reigns of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, they did so with the notion that the Bucs’ pass rush was simply not good enough. So they went hard after one of the most-prized free agents this offseason — defensive end Michael Johnson, then with the Cincinnati Bengals, signing him to a five-year deal worth $43 million, including $24 million in guaranteed money, fourth-most of any player in the league at his position.
“It’s been great,” Johnson said of adjusting to his new surroundings in Tampa Bay, a team that struggled last year in getting to the quarterback. They finished 23rd in the league in sacks last year with 35 takedowns, 15 of them coming on linebacker, safety and cornerback blitzes. This scheme will, or at least should, be more reliant on the front four.
“That’s the goal — go out, play fast, play physical, win games and get all that good stuff. It goes hand-in-hand. Coach Smith and Coach Frazier, they’re putting together a great defense. I’m just thankful to be a part of it, and looking forward to all the stuff I can do.”
But it’s not just pressure. It’s actual take-downs that are the easiest way to gauge the success of a defensive line or a particular player. Johnson understands that argument from both sides.
The 27-year-old former third-round pick out of Georgia Tech produced 11 1/2 sacks in 2012. In 2013, that figure dropped to 3 1/2. Interestingly enough, he had his best season as a run defender, according to Pro Football Focus (graded at 20.5). He also had a career-high 17 QB hits along with 41 QB hurries, seven batted-down passes at the line of scrimmage and nine pass breakups.
Whether you can make the case that his actual production didn’t fall off as much as the numbers indicate, all eyes will be on Johnson for a rebound. He’ll also be one of the deciding factors in the success of Smith and Frazier’s defense in Tampa, stepping in at a key position that made superstars out of Julius Peppers and Jared Allen for those respective coaches. He said he doesn’t feel any pressure stepping into their shoes either.
“No pressure. I got a chance to text with Peppers earlier this year. He was just like it, ‘Just continue to work hard, do what you’ve been doing, but just continue to improve on everything and pay attention to the small details and stuff.’ And that’s what Coach [Joe] Cullen and Coach [Mike] Phair, they’ve been stressing — just honing in on stuff, because it’s the little things that you may not be paying attention to that count the most and that’s what we’re doing, trying to hone in on our craft.”
Smith and Licht assembled a strong supporting cast around him, one that began with two-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy.
“Just to get to meet Gerald — since day one [that] I signed, he reached out to me, he’s been great as well. Extremely hard worker…he makes everyone bring their game to another level.”
They also reunited him with one of his former teammates in Cincinnati, Clinton McDonald, an interior pass rusher who won a Super Bowl with the Seahawks this past year. “It’s great to be back with my dog, Clinton,” Johnson said. “That’s one of my best friends.”
And on the other side of the ball, the Bucs brought in Anthony Collins, another former Bengal, to man the left tackle position. Johnson said teammates will feed off his energy and upbeat personality in the trenches.
“You’re gonna hear him, but you’re gonna see him too. He’s a competitor. He’s worked hard. He’s worked his way up. He’s finally getting his opportunity and I’m so happy for him because I’ve seen the work that he’s put in.”
The Bucs will be able to see the fruits of Johnson’s own labor, and the impact of a newly-assembled defensive line when the team re-convenes in less than five weeks for training camp.
— Jenna Laine