During the 2018 offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers signed three defensive linemen in free agency, added a fourth via trade and used their first-round draft pick to nab a fifth, in hopes of creating a deep and talented front that could rampage through opposing backfields. Until August 9, however, that new-look line only gets to take out its aggression against players in very similar uniforms.
And that's a very good thing for the Buccaneers' offensive line.
After producing a league-low 22 sacks last year, Tampa Bay's D-line got a talent infusion that included free agents Beau Allen, Vinny Curry and Mitch Unrein, trade acquisition Jason Pierre-Paul and draft pick Vita Vea. By sheer numbers that's one newcomer for every member of the starting offensive line, and each of them offers a fresh challenge. Add in incumbents like six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy and young edge rusher Noah Spence and you have a daunting daily lineup on the practice field for opposing blockers.
"The moves that we made in free agency, trades and then the draft have brought a lot of new guys into our room," said Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith. "I've been impressed with the work ethic and I think it breeds a lot of competition, and when you have that competition I think it brings out the best in all of you."
Smith was mostly referring to the competition among a deep group of defensive linemen to get reps and carve out roles of significance for game day. But the competition has also gotten vastly better for those on the offensive front. For years, Buccaneer interior linemen have had to deal with McCoy and his ridiculously quick first step, but there hasn't always been an analogous test for the tackles or the guard on the opposite side of McCoy. Now the O-Linemen have to deal with such strong inside presences as Allen and Vea (currently sidelined by injury) and furious speed rushes from Pierre-Paul, Curry and Spence.
"In all the one-on-one drills, we have two different periods where it's either one-on-one or two-on-one and there's really no easy match up when you're way down the line," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "There's good matchup across the board and that hasn't always been the case. There's times when maybe – just as an example – the left guard maybe he's not going against quite as talented a player and those first two groups of D-Line, they're pretty talented guys. All guys who have started games in the NFL."
As Pierre-Paul noted, that's a lot of different styles, and the new veterans are also trying to mold the younger players into threats, as well. Successful offensive lines often talk about how important it is for all the starters to jell and play as one cohesive unit; well, the Bucs' defensive line is trying to do the same in order to be more of a threat.
"It's been great," he said. "We just keep creating chemistry out there. Everybody pass rushes differently; everybody plays the run different. As veterans on the team, we're teaching the young guys how to come up and how to do things correctly. We were all once in their position, so we are having great chemistry together. That's a great start for us."
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place.
Pierre-Paul, in particular, has been a handful for all of the Bucs' blockers, and not just the ends. That has been true throughout camp and it was again on Wednesday, when the former Giant had successful reps over right tackle and in the gap between the center and the right guard during one-on-ones. The drill as a whole was not lopsided, though, as several offensive linemen turned in "winning" reps, as well. The important thing is that more of those reps were challenging for both sides.
"They emphasized getting some bodies up front in the offseason," said offensive tackle Demar Dotson of the Bucs' defense. "We got JPP and Vinny Curry and Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, so it's definitely going to make it more competitive. And you've got a defensive line coach [Brentson Buckner] that's competitive, that's always yelling and hollering and screaming and pushing those guys. So I knew it was going to be a competitive camp going into it. I knew I personally wasn't going to get a lot of reps right away, but I knew what kind of camp it was going to be. And it is, man – you've got one-on-ones that are competitive, and run-block and team-run and all that stuff, guys are firing. One day the defense will win and one day the offense will win. We've just got to get each other better."
Dotson knew he would have to be eased into action after having a surgical procedure on his knee in the spring. He has been taking his usual spot at right tackle with the first team in early-practice drills but is still being held out of 11-on-11 periods in order to avoid him getting caught up in a pile. He's only been included in one-on-ones in the last two practices, and then only for a few snaps.
After getting just two one-on-one reps in the previous practice, Dotson was matched with Pierre-Paul for his third such snap of camp on Wednesday morning. It's fair to say that Pierre-Paul got the better of that particular meeting, but that was to be expected with Dotson's knee still limiting him. Dotson encountered Pierre-Paul and the Giants' defense just last October, in a game that the Buccaneers won and allowed only one sack, and is fully confident he can handle that challenge when healthy.
Even if that particular rep didn't prove much, what happened right after was notable and encouraging. While some other players got their shot in the drill, Pierre-Paul came over to where the offensive players were huddled and had a long conversation with Dotson. The two were comparing notes in an effort to make both of them better.
"He pulled me to the side and told me the things that he doesn't like from an offensive tackle," said Dotson. "He was staying some stuff that, as D-ends, they hate. It's stuff that I already knew, but he's trying to help me work. It was good."
Head Coach Dirk Koetter said he was impressed with how willing Pierre-Paul has been to share his expertise with the team's younger linemen. Koetter wasn't watching Wednesday's one-on-one drill – he was on the next field observing a seven-on-seven exercise – but he likely would have appreciated his new pass-rusher trying to help the offensive line as well. And that's something he will continue to do, along with all of the men on the Bucs' newly-deep defensive line, simply by providing a much more serious daily challenge.