The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' big men have had enough of playing patty cake.
By "big men" I mean the offensive and defensive linemen, of course, the largest subgroup in a sport of very large people. They are split into two, one group trying to tear down any offensive play before it can get started and the other trying to prevent that from happening. And many an NFL team architect believes it is on these men as the foundation – well, these men and a good quarterback – that one builds a winning team.
The Buccaneers went into the 2018 offseason, following a 2017 campaign that did not fulfill fairly high preseason expectations, knowing they had to improve those two groups. Their work in free agency focused on those areas almost exclusively. The offensive line got a key new centerpiece in Ryan Jensen, while the defensive line was reloaded with Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and Jason Pierre-Paul (the last actually through a trade rather than the open market). In the draft, the first pick by General Manager Jason Licht was defensive tackle Vita Vea, and he later traded up to get offensive guard Alex Cappa in the third round.
The Bucs' offseason program began in April but then kicked into a higher gear a few weeks after the draft, when OTAs began and all the veterans and rookies worked together for the first time. This was also the first opportunity, in Phase 3 of the NFL's offseason rules for those two groups of linemen to actually oppose each other on the field. Each unit had a seriously new look and a significant amount of room for improvement, statistically, from the previous season. They were ready to hone each other through competition and, thanks to that inherent competitiveness, prove which side has taken a bigger leap.
That really hasn't been possible yet, however. The lack of pads and the prohibition of any real contact by NFL rules hogties what New York Giants G.M. Dave Gettleman likes to call his team's "hog mollies." Linemen win their battles by physically imposing their will on their opponents, and that's simply not allowed in the spring and early summer.
And that's why, as much as training camp is a hot, repetitive, exhausting, occasionally irritating grind, Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and his linemates are actually looking forward to it. The training camp practice ground may not be the proving grounds, but it is a proving ground of sorts.
"We did what we could without pads," said McCoy. "Everybody knows [that when] training camps comes, it's just different. It's real football then. Even then it's not real because you can't tackle. D-linemen, we can't finish until we get in the game. That's the only time we can finish. But up to that point, you can do what's necessary, but [when] training camp comes, we'll see what we're made of."
If the Buccaneers' two lines are made of sturdier, more productive stuff than a year ago, that might be enough to get the team over the hump and back into the playoffs. There is plenty of talent all over the depth chart, particularly at the offensive skill positions and in the linebacking corps. But the Bucs of 2017 didn't succeed in some of the core areas that Head Coach Dirk Koetter and his staff know they must in order to win more games. They didn't run the ball well enough on offense (27th in the league with 90.6 yards per game) and they didn't put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks (32nd in the league with 22 sacks.)
McCoy understands that his group and their big-men opposition are where it all begins, and he also understands that those two units have a crucial responsibility to make each other better. That will start in training camp in late July.
"That's how you hold each other accountable," said McCoy. "That's all we do. Professionals, the best teams in the league, the guys up front make each other better. The proof is in the pudding. Look at the past Super Bowl champion. Both of the lines were top two or three in the NFL, offense and defense. Made each other better – [got] a Super Bowl."
Indeed, the reigning-champion Philadelphia Eagles ranked third in the NFL in rushing yards per game, fourth in yards per carry and 13th in sacks allowed per pass play. On defense, Philly allowed the fewest rushing yards per game, ranked sixth in yards allowed per carry and racked up 38 sacks to tie for 15th. The defense used a deep rotation of eight or nine players up front to keep everyone as fresh as possible.
The Buccaneers nabbed two players out of that Eagles D-Line rotation signing Allen in the opening hours of free agency and snapping up Curry when he was released in a salary-cap move. Unrein came from the Bears and the trade that brought in Pierre-Paul sent a third-round pick to the Giants. Allen and Curry have brand new Super Bowl rings and JPP got his in 2011. Unrein was part of another deep D-Line rotation in Denver in 2013 as the Broncos made it to the Super Bowl before losing to Seattle. All of that experienced depth looks good to McCoy.
"All of them have been to the Super Bowl," he said of his new veteran linemates. "Three of them won it. So they know what it takes. They know what it is to be accountable. That's why I haven't had to do much up front with the D-line, because we brought in guys that know what that's like. They know what they need to do so I don't have to say this, say that, do that – they've been where I want to go. They're teaching me. It's going to be great."
There were some hot days during OTAs that had a bit of that training-camp feel, and new Defensive Line Coach Brentson Buckner notably brought down some heat of his own when he wasn't seeing the type of work he wanted to see. In form and to some extent in the conditions, the work in May and June was similar to what the team will do in training camp. For the offensive and defensive linemen, however, the difference between the two will be like night and day. McCoy is ready for that because he knows the potential of the Bucs' big men but also knows there is a long way to go.
"I'm excited about the progress that we've made up to this point," he said. "You can see guys' improvement, guys taking to coaching. Coach Buck is teaching and we're just going to keep building off of that. There's a lot of work to be done."