The Tampa Bay Buccaneers drafted Gerald McCoy with the third overall pick in April, believing they were getting a rare talent who could make defensive tackle a position of dominance in their defense once again.
As it turns out, the Bucs got more than they bargained for.
McCoy has indeed stepped right into the starting under tackle position and provided the sort of interior push that the team has coveted for years, but that's just the start of it. He has also proved to be an interesting threat at defensive end in the team's base 4-3 front, enough that he has actually started two of the first three games at right end. Fans may have also noticed a liberal sprinkling of 3-4 looks, with three down linemen and linebacker Quincy Black standing up on the edge as a fourth pass-rusher. McCoy has helped make that strategy work by serving as one of the 3-4 ends, a position that generally requires size, strength and the ability to beat – or at least productively occupy – double teams.
No matter where he has lined up, McCoy has been productive. Through three games he already has 12 tackles, the most by any defensive tackle on the team and a strong total for the defensive tackle position. He has added two tackles for loss, indicating his ability to quickly penetrate the defensive line. Moreover his three quarterback pressures are second on the team only to defensive end Stylez G. White, hinting at the havoc he is beginning to create in opposing backfields.
From a career milestone standpoint, McCoy is still awaiting his first NFL sack. However, like interceptions, sacks can be a fickle statistic. A cornerback can play flawless coverage for 60 minutes but never be in position to pick off a pass. Similarly, a defensive lineman can spend an entire afternoon forcing a quarterback out of his comfort zone but never be the one who puts the passer on the ground.
Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, who has engineered McCoy's multi-tasking role, has been thrilled with the impact his prized rookie has made through the first three games of the season.
"He's flushing the [quarterback] out and Quincy just happens to be capping people off," said Morris. "We talk about wins. It's not just the sack number. It's did you affect the quarterback's throw, were you able to knock the pass down, did you get a tip on the ball, did you make the quarterback run outside the pocket so he couldn't see his wide-open receiver over here? All those things we talk about one-on-one rush. The sacks will come. We had the one game where we had the four sacks, and they've got to come back and get that stuff going."
The four-sack game came in Carolina, where intense pressure on starting quarterback Matt Moore helped Tampa Bay come away with a 20-7 victory and seemed to hasten the Panthers' move to rookie passer Jimmy Claussen. One of those sacks belonged to Black, and it came on a play in which the team lined up in that 3-4 look, with the linebacker rushing from the left end, on the side McCoy was playing end. At the snap, McCoy barreled into a gang of Carolina blockers and pushed them all backward, creating a wide-open lane to his right. Black delayed for a moment then looped into that lane and was in Moore's face before the quarterback had time to react. It was the last play of the game for the unfortunate Panther passer.
"McCoy was just as much a part of that Quincy sack against the Carolina Panthers as anybody," said Morris. "When there are three guys blocking him and he still busts through and forces the quarterback to step up into Quincy's lap and Quincy gets a monstrous hit on the quarterback and we see a new guy, that's pretty productive for me when you're talking about Gerald McCoy."
The Bucs are trying to re-establish the sort of coming-from-all-directions pass-rush that helped make their defense so dominant in the late '90s and early '00s. The sack numbers have yet to pile up, but the impact of McCoy and his fellow young rushers is starting to show up in other statistical ways, such as interceptions and the opposition's passer rating. Disruption in the backfield leads to bad passing plays even when the quarterback isn't sacked, and indeed the Buccaneers are tied for the NFL lead in six sacks.
Here are the full-season passer ratings for the Buccaneers' opponents from 1992-2003, when that defense was in its prime: 60.1, 65.0, 65.3, 48.4 (!!!) and 69.7. It hasn't been nearly that low since, but through three games in 2010, Tampa Bay's foes have compiled a passer rating of 67.9.
McCoy has had a lot to do with that. Morris could leave the young lineman at one position for every snap and possibly hasten his inevitable development as the Bucs' next great under tackle. Instead, he is utilizing McCoy's versatility to make the entire defense as productive and unpredictable as possible.
"If I was thinking selfishly for McCoy I would probably say yes [to staying in one position,]," said Morris. "But thinking selfishly from a defensive standpoint, that makes us better. You love Quincy on that edge. If [McCoy] was a selfish player he would come to me and say, 'Hey, just leave me in this one spot and let me get better at it,' but he doesn't have that in him. Our defense needs him to move around and be productive, be smart, be sharp and be wise beyond his years. And he has been.
"I think it helps him because they can't find him a little bit. It helps him get in different spots where he's able to make disruptive plays. He's got two tackles for loss and a bunch of tackles for us. The sacks will come; he's just got to continue to rush. The sacks are going to have to come with that group pressure we've talked about."
The Bucs have rushed out to a 2-1 start in 2010 in large part because so many of their young players are quickly maturing into big-time contributors. Twenty-four-year-old Aqib Talib has two interceptions in just two games played. Mike Williams, 23, leads the team in receiving with 12 catches and two touchdowns. Eleven straight field goals have gone through the uprights for 24-year-old kicker Connor Barth. And 22-year-old Josh Freeman is handling the quarterback position like a player 10 years his senior.
Other than Freeman, McCoy might be the most critical member of the team's impressive group of 25-and-under players. So far, he has been everything the Bucs hoped for, and more.
Each week, Buccaneers.com is highlighting four members of the team's 25-And-Under Crew, taking a look at how the season is unfolding for those players. In addition to McCoy, here are three more young Bucs who have been excelling of late.
- WR Preston Parker
The fun may just be starting for Parker, 23, who slipped through the seven rounds in April without being drafted. The Buccaneers snapped up the former North Alabama standout in the hours that followed the final pick.
The 6-0, 200-pound Parker has speed to burn and he impressed the Buccaneers during training camp with his polished play. Despite intense competition within the deepest group of receiving talent the Buccaneers have amassed in years, Parker managed to earn a spot on the 53-man roster.
He was inactive for the first two games of the season, though Morris mused aloud about ways to get the intriguing rookie receiver involved. In Week Three, with Maurice Stovall nursing a sore back, Parker got the call as one of the 45 active players on game day and quickly made an impact. Though Micheal Spurlock handled the kickoff return duties in the first half against the Steelers, Morris turned to Parker in the second half in search of a spark. He got one when Parker returned the opening kickoff in the third quarter 37 yards to the Bucs' 39.
Parker didn't have any receptions in his NFL debut, but that could change in the coming weeks. Among the projects the Buccaneers are working on with the extra time afforded by the bye week are the development of potential young contributors (Arrelious Benn, LeGarrette Blount, etc.) and the proper utilization of new starting receiver Sammie Stroughter. Both could lead to playing time for Parker.
- LB Geno Hayes
Of the Bucs' two starting outside linebackers, it's 26-year-old Quincy Black who has already made a mark in both the sack and interception categories. But that doesn't mean the 23-year-old Hayes has lacked impact in comparison.
One of the speediest linebackers the Bucs have ever employed, Hayes has made a habit of quickly invading the opposing backfield. Through three games he already has five tackles for loss to lead the team.
Overall, Hayes has racked up 25 tackles, second only to Barrett Ruud (33) among Buccaneer defenders. The third-year linebacker is beginning to thrive in his second season as a starter, particularly as Morris continues to call a more aggressive mix of defensive schemes.
- RB LeGarrette Blount
As we reported on Buccaneers.com earlier this week, Blount is getting an extra dose of practice reps this week as the team determines if he can become a viable part of its running game. And potentially soon.
Blount inserted himself into the mix with an out-of-nowhere cameo against the Steelers, running six times for 27 yards and the Buccaneers' only touchdown. His power running game and 247-pound frame proved to be a successful change of pace on a day in which Tampa Bay's running attack was otherwise not very effective.
Blount didn't join the Buccaneers until September 6, two days after the team's original 53-man roster was formed and one day after he was released by the Tennessee Titans. He was surprised to be cut, believing he had made the team, but he just might have ended up in a better situation. The Buccaneers are obviously not hesitant to put their youngest players into significant roles.
Blount is aware that the size of his role in the Bucs' offense will depend largely on how quickly he can pick up the team's protection schemes. That is the major focus of his extra work this week and next.