TAMPA, FLA. (AP) - After investing first- and second-round picks on defensive linemen in each of the last two drafts, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are counting heavily on Frank Okam and Michael Bennett, 25-year-old linemen who were cast off by other teams.
The 6-foot-5 Okam, whose weight is listed as 350 pounds, has emerged as the Bucs' run stuffer, although he has yet to crack the starting lineup at tackle. Coach Raheem Morris describes Okam, who was signed to the Bucs' practice squad in November after being released by Houston and then Seattle, as "a space-eater, a penetrator, a problem."
Bennett, claimed on waivers from the Seahawks in October of 2009, is currently starting at left end ahead of rookie Da'Quan Bowers.
The Bucs drafted Bowers in the second round last spring after taking end Adrian Clayborn in the first round. Tackles Gerald McCoy and Brian Price were the top picks in 2009. McCoy and Roy Miller, a third-round selection in 2009, are the starting tackles in the Bucs' 4-3 setup for now.
"This could be a battle from week to week (based on) how they're practicing, what package we're going to start the game with, who's going out there first, who's going to be out there competing the best," Morris said. "How do you want to look inside? Do you want to look short, thick and quick, or do you want to look Okam-ish? It could change."
Change in the defensive front is regarded as essential for the Bucs, whose 26 sacks were fewest in the NFC last season. They also gave up the most rushing yards and yards per rush in the NFC in each of the last two seasons.
"I've been told since I started playing football, run defense starts with the two inside guys," said Okam. "I take pride in that. When you look at the numbers at the end of the game, if they have over 100 (rushing yards) then that's on the defensive tackles."
Bucs opponents ran for 132 yards per game last year.
"Even last year they talked about the sacks and everything, but the big reason I get sacks has to do with stopping the run and having as many opportunities as we have to rush the pass," said Bennett. "If we stop the run, third down is something we deserve. It's like a treat."
Okam, who reported to training camp at 370 pounds, doesn't expect to run down many quarterbacks. He hopes to occupy blockers.
"If a team can run the ball on us and control the possession, it keeps our offense off the field. It keeps us on the field and gets us more tired," he said. "The more efficient we can get at stopping the run and get rid of leaky yardage, make sure they're not breaking tackles when we're swarming to the ball, that's the kind of identity we're trying to set."
Results in the preseason have been mixed. New England ran for 200 yards on the Bucs, but Miami ran for only 29 yards on 17 carries Saturday night.
The Patriots game "was just unacceptable, and we know we're a lot better than that," Okam said. "We just wanted to put things on tape that showed that because it's really not about talking anymore. It's time where you've got to start doing stuff."