During a 16-10 defeat by the Dallas Cowboys in week 3, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped more than just a game. While the loss that witnessed the team register a mere 166 yards of offense was disheartening, a 2nd half injury to one of the Bucs' rising stars may have greater impact on the 2012 season.
Tearing ligaments in his right knee, defensive end Adrian Clayborn will has been placed on injured reserve and will miss the remainder of the campaign, since surgery is required for healing. Despite the inconvenience for the player's development, this is a fairly common injury in the fast-paced NFL. Following grueling rehab in the months ahead, the long-term outlook for Clayborn remains positive.
However, the loss of their 2nd year competitor's services may prove significant. Clayborn was selected with the 20th pick of the 1st round of the 2011 draft and certainly met expectations in year 1. Playing on the lowest-ranked defense in the NFL, the University of Iowa product topped the Bucs with 7.5 sacks. He further contributed 42 tackles by suiting up for all 16 games.
Though Clayborn had yet to find the quarterback in 2012, he was expected to anchor defensive end for a unit that has enjoyed measured progress under Greg Schiano. With an emphasis on smash-mouth defense, the Bucs' new coach has made improvements to the defensive line a top priority. Thus far, the plan has thrived, as the squad shocking leads the NFL by only permitting 47.3 rushing yards per contest.
To be fair, these gains have not centered around Clayborn's performance. The Bucs' other starting defensive end Michael Bennett has impressed with 3 sacks and emerged as a real threat to the opposing signal-caller. Furthermore, Schiano has shaken up the ranks of defensive tackle, and former 1st rounder Gerald McCoy is finally living up to his potential.
Yet, the loss of Clayborn deprives the Bucs of certainty on the line. With no clear replacement, the team must now experiment to find suitable stop-gap measures. Schiano has named backup defensive end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim as starter for Sunday's match-up with the Washington Redskins and reserve George Johnson is an additional option to take snaps. Each young player is an unknown quantity, who was not highly regarded exiting college. In fact, the pair of ends combined to compete in only 5 games in 2011.
Seeking more experience, Tampa Bay added free agent defensive end Jeff Charleston on Wednesday, September 26. The 6th year player had signed with the Minnesota Vikings in the off-season, but was released during roster cuts in August. Charleston spent the past 4 seasons with the New Orleans Saints and competed as a rookie in 2007 with the Indianapolis Colts. In 65 career games, the 29 year-old has racked up 8 sacks and 87 tackles. While this move provides depth, it must be noted that Charleston only received 4 starts in those 5 seasons. He is a career backup.
Perhaps the final hope of replacing Clayborn rests with a player who lined up beside him last season. Entering the league simultaneously, Bucs' 2nd year defensive end Da'Quan Bowers experienced his own setback by rupturing his Achilles in May. Healing can require upwards of a year, but reports circulate that Bowers is ahead of schedule. He currently sits on the 'Physically Unable to Perform' list and is eligible to dress after week 6. While Bowers' return would be a pleasant surprise, Tampa Bay must be cautious not to risk harming his development.
The Bucs' defensive line has been the surprise of the young 2012 season. Though Schiano's team was vanquished in 2 of 3 games, the unit is noticeably playing with increased intensity. Despite a lack of prominent names, the squad already has stifled capable rushers DeMarco Murray, Cam Newton, Ahmad Bradshaw, and DeAngelo Williams. With 7 sacks and countless pressures, the defensive line has consistently found ways to disrupt the pocket. Giving credit to Schiano, these same players guided the Bucs to a league-worst 23 sacks in 2011.
Adrian Clayborn will be missed, but his outlook for next year and beyond must be the priority. Tampa Bay is likely to pursue no single plan to replace the pass-rusher. The club should instead experiment, perhaps even employ players at new positions or within different formations. As the controversial conclusions of the past 2 games indicate, even if Tom Coughlin and others disapprove, the Bucs' wounded defense intends to continue a commitment to toughness.
More by Jeff Briscoe from Yahoo! Contributor Network:
Jeff Briscoe is a writer who covers sports for the Yahoo! Contributor Network. A loyal Tampa Bay Bucs fan, he co-hosts the Florida-based radio show, The Sports Train.