Brentson Buckner played against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and he coached against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Buckner's views on the Bucs, the NFL as a whole and defensive line play in particular have been shaped by a successful 12-year playing career, a strong five-year run as a coach with the Arizona Cardinals and even his experiences molding seven-year-old football players.
But what really galvanized Buckner's perspective on the Buccaneers' defensive line – an important perspective as he is coming on as that group's new coach – was something he witnessed from the fan's perspective 15 years ago.
Buckner was playing for Carolina when the NFC South was formed via the 2002 realignment, throwing the Panthers and Buccaneers in the same division. Tampa Bay beat Carolina twice that season on its way to the first NFC South title, which proved to be a springboard to the Super Bowl. Carolina finished 7-9 but, given the improvement from a 1-15 record in 2001, Buckner and company were rapidly gaining confidence.
Buckner and three of his fellow Panther D-Linemen decided to come to Tampa on January 12, 2003 to witness their rivals begin their playoff run. The Buccaneers demolished the San Francisco 49ers that day, 31-6, to earn a trip to the NFC Championship Game in Philadelphia. Buckner still remembers the atmosphere, and in particular what the Buccaneers' top-ranked defense meant to the crowd.
"Me, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers, as much as we disliked Warren Sapp, we admired what they did," said Buckner. "We wanted to see the atmosphere that they would create when they came out, the energy with which they played with. To see those guys run out of that tunnel on Sunday, you thought it was an earthquake. I remember calling Mike Rucker from the stands and telling him that this is what we had to create in Carolina. They did that with their front four. It wasn't the quarterback running out, wasn't the star running back. It was the defensive line that was being introduced."
As players, Buckner and his Panther teammates wanted to accomplish what the Buccaneers had during their impressive run from the mid-90s through the mid-00s: a potent pass-rush generated solely by the four down linemen. That's the dream for any 4-3 team, of course, because it allows for more players to be devoted to coverage rather than bringing extra blitzers. Those '02 Buccaneers accomplished that frequently, led by Sapp and Simeon Rice, creating 43 sacks and plenty of additional havoc, and the secondary feasted. Tampa Bay's pass defense in 2002 allowed just 10 touchdown passes while picking off 31 throws, leading to a season-long opponent passer rating of 48.4.
"I think Tampa Bay, just the way it was built, those guys came in and built something special," said Buckner. "They were winning games 6-3, 3-0. I remember Warren Sapp saying, 'Give us three points, that's enough to win the game, we're up 3-0 and that means it's us.' We start to build on that. I think you have to lay that initial foundation and have success with it. [We need to remember] that we have the Lombardi trophy in there and one of the top defenses of all time. People are going to like what they like and this city longs for that type of defense because they saw what Sapp and them did by putting that trophy in there. We have to try to duplicate that."
The Buccaneers have a long way to go to get to that level after ranking last in the NFL in sacks in 2002, but Buckner isn't focused on that specific statistic anyway.
"Sacks are the ending of being in the right place at the right time and maximizing that opportunity," he said. "You play 1,300 plays, you have 10 plays [with a sack] and they want to throw a parade. Well, what about the 1,290 [other] plays that you have?
"Look at the Super Bowl – not a sack all game and then there's one big sack and it's the biggest play of the game. So it's about being consistent, putting yourself in the right spot and constantly trying to break that wall down. That's where I judge it. Are you always going to get sacks? No, because that offensive line gets paid, too. But it's the consistent pressure, moving him off the spot, making him make bad throws [or] throw a little too early, affect the game that way."
Buckner's aforementioned work with seven-year-olds came during his gradual transition from playing to coaching. He got into high school coaching and later took on youth football and found joy in helping kids learn to love the game. When the path eventually took him back to the NFL, Buckner found himself with a talented crew in Arizona, one that ranked seventh in the NFL in sacks over the past five years and led the league with 48 QB takedowns in 2016.
Now the next step is to Tampa, where his memories of the last great Buccaneer defense are clearly driving him to help create something similar. To get there, he'll need to instill that same drive in this D-Line charges.
"The vision for this defensive line is to be physically and mentally tough," said Buckner. "When you turn on that film, you're going to see four guys recklessly attacking the guy in front of them like their lives depend on it. We're going to hunt until the whistle blows. We don't want anyone to feel comfortable. All week long, that offensive line is telling their coach and their running back and quarterback that they can run this play and block those guys. We're going to take that personally. We're not going to go out there looking for a fight. We're going to go out there inviting a fight when that ball is snapped because we want to be vicious. We want our play to precede us when we walk into a stadium."