The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hired Brentson Buckner to be their new defensive line coach on February 20, about three weeks after Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy came back from playing in the Pro Bowl in Orlando. At that point, before the NFL's calendar year flipped from 2017 to 2018, McCoy was pretty clearly the best asset Buckner had inherited. That was McCoy's sixth straight Pro Bowl appearance, after all, and even though he turned 30 a few days after Buckner arrived, he still possesses the otherworldly first step that has made him one of the league's best interior pass-rushers.
The 2018 league year did begin a few weeks after Buckner's arrival, and the Buccaneers promptly filled up his meeting room with an enormous amount of fresh talent for the new season. Free agency brought end Vinny Curry and tackles Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, and the team also landed elite edge rusher Jason Pierre-Paul via trade. In the draft, the Buccaneers used their first-round pick, number 12 overall, to nab 347-pound defensive tackle Vita Vea, a size-speed marvel.
Pictures from Buccaneers practice on May 16th.
Even with all of those additions, it would surprise no one if McCoy remains that group's top performer and their best bet at another Pro Bowl invite. McCoy will certainly remain the leader in that defensive line room. That said, Buckner hopes his unit presents opposing teams with much more than just one thing to worry about.
"Embrace your teammates around you and then just watch it grow," Buckner recently told McCoy, paraphrasing himself. "Because I don't need a Superman. I need a whole bunch of Super Friends."
It's a particularly fitting comparison for Buckner to use on McCoy because of the latter's well-known fondness for superheroes. McCoy has been something of a Superman for the Buccaneers, averaging more than eight sacks per year during his run of Pro Bowl campaigns, a huge number for a defensive tackle. He had his lowest sack total in five years with 6.0 last year, but that was misleading because he also registered 24 quarterback hits, and the only NFL defensive tackle with more was Aaron Donald.
But the Buccaneers as a team had a league-low 22 sacks, and that was not misleading. It was the biggest problem for a defense that finished last in yards allowed, and it was clearly Tampa Bay's biggest offseason priority. The Bucs now think they can run eight or nine linemen deep, barring injuries, and that's a formula that could lead to fewer snaps for some players but more productive snaps for all players.
Buckner says he and his men will prepare to play 100 snaps straight; he responded to a question about players getting sloppy with their technique when tired by asking, 'What is tired? Tired don't exist.' There are principals in his group who are used to being on the field the vast majority of the time, such as McCoy and Pierre-Paul. There are others, like Curry, who could see more playing time than they did on their previous teams. The Buccaneers aren't about to minimize the opportunities for their best pass-rushers, but they hope to find a way to make better combined use of their, uh, superpowers.
"The more players you have, the more you trust to go out there, you even out the workload," said Buckner, not talking specifically about McCoy at this point. "So now, if I've been a great player with 60 plays, how much better can I be if I only have to play 35? Now I can play those full-speed, a hundred miles per hour. Don't count your plays, just make your plays count.
"But now you cut those down, look at the energy you're going to have. Because the end goal, it don't matter if I have a thousand tackles and we're 3-13. The end goal is to win the game. I want the guys on the field who are fresh and give us the opportunity to be the best we can be as a defensive line every snap."
Even if it involves more players seeing a significant amount of playing time, this new approach could actually be a simpler one. With fresh players on the field as much as possible, the emphasis is simply going to be on beating the man in front of you.
"Don't make football a science," said Buckner. "Don't make it bigger than what it is. Football's a sport that's based on pure fundamentals: tackling, running, blocking, using good technique. And that's what we work on. A Mercedes is still a Mercedes whether you've got rims on it or not. It's still a very expensive car that gets you where you want to go. We don't have to have all the bells and whistles. We want to play technique-sound football. We want to be true to the game."
The Buccaneers still have to determine how best to use newcomers like Allen and Curry. They have to find out what they can expect from third-year man Noah Spence, a talented edge rusher who has had poor injury luck his first two years. They have to determine exactly what they have in their first-rounder, Vea. The rock in all of this should once again be McCoy. There's no reason to think he will provide any less than he has the past six years, and with more talent demanding attention around him, it's fair to believe he'll contribute anymore.
If so, says Buckner, it won't be because he hit the weight room any harder this offseason or "You get to the point of being 30 years old, it's not about your ability now, it's about playing the game up here," said the animated coach, pointing at his temple. "I sat down and watched film with him and I told him, 'The way you're going to improve your game is to mentally evolve your game even more.' And he wants it. He's hungry for it, because for nine years, eight years, he's done the same thing and been successful but it hasn't shown up for the team. So now I'm challenging him personally to go to that next level. Not get stronger, not get faster – play the game up here. Know what they're going to do to you before it happens."
And maybe McCoy will still be the Bucs' Superman. He'll just have a lot more friends following him into battle.