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TAMPA, Fla. – One of Tampa Bay's top priorities this offseason is improving one of the NFL's weakest pass rushes, an effort the Buccaneers launched with the signing of Michael Johnson in free agency.
The Bucs signed the former Cincinnati defensive end to a five-year deal worth nearly $44 million and are banking him helping coach Lovie Smith transform the Bucs from a struggling franchise that's missed the playoffs six consecutive seasons into a division title contender.
Johnson had a career-best 11 1/2 sacks for the Bengals two years ago, and Smith is counting him to be the same type of disruptive player for the Bucs in 2014.
"Our ends, how we define success for them, starting off is a double-digit sack guy," the coach said.
"We didn't bring Michael in here to be a role player or a player that can play against the run. Those are important things, but he has to be able to beat their left tackle one on one," Smith added. "In order for us to have success, our defensive lien has to perform a certain way."
Although Johnson posted less impressive statistics with 3 1-2 sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception in helping the Bengals make the playoffs in 2013, Smith didn't necessarily believe the 6-foot-7, 270-pound end had a down year.
The Bengals played half the season without injured tackle Geno Atkins, yet still finished with one of the league's stingiest defenses.
"To me I look at the ceiling. What's the best a player has played," Smith said. "And with Michael, I'm going to go to that 11-sack year he had. And it's not just sacks. He's a a legitimate outside rusher, and we feel like he's going to have a good year."
The Bucs haven't had a player finish with double-digit sacks since Simeon Rice led them with 14 in 2005. A year ago, Tampa Bay had 35 sacks, tied for 23rd in the NFL.
Johnson, who had 26 1-2 sacks in five seasons with Cincinnati, expects to make a difference.
"I would like to get back to double digits. That's the plan. I don't see why not," the 27-year-old said, adding that's looking forward to playing on the same front with Gerald McCoy, who like Atkins, is one of the league's top defensive tackles.
McCoy, a two-time Pro Bowl selection, led the Bucs with a career-best 9 1/2 sacks last season.
"I'm here to do whatever they ask me to do. It doesn't matter to me how we get it done, we're going to get it done," Johnson said. "I'm excited to be here. I'm happy to be with my new teammates. I'm just ready to go to work."
The Bucs also signed tackle Clinton McDonald, who had 5 1/2 sacks as a reserve for Seattle last season. Another candidate to bolster the pass rush a lift is oft-injured Da'Quan Bowers, who has a disappointment since entering the league as a second-round draft pick in 2011.
The 24-year-old end started two of 13 games he appeared last season, finishing with seven tackles and one sack. He's also gotten some work during the opening week of training camp.
If Bowers proves he can be effective at both positions, it could enhance his chances of finding a role in Smith's defense.
"On game day we're going to dress seven defensive lineman, so we need at least one player that can play both inside and out. And body type-wise he's right — we have a couple of players right in that area," Smith said. "He, I think, could possibly rush in third-down situations inside, and possibly play more ... on running downs outside."
Bowers, who's started eight games in three seasons, is eager to show he can do the job.
"I owe it to this organization. I owe it to this team," he said. "It's about time I really put forth the effort to be that player I know I'm capable of being."
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