The Tampa Bay Buccaneers put on full pads for the first time in 2018 – four days into training camp – and that instantly made one thing a lot better: one-on-one drills between the offensive and defensive linemen.
The big men had first started banging away at each other on Saturday, when the team practiced in shoulder pads. Sunday's one-on-one session came during the second half of the workout, after the team had relocated inside the indoor facility. Whether it was the quick track of the turf, the invigorating effects of air conditioning or – most likely – the full pads, the drill was fast-paced and hard-hitting, and several of the Bucs' new defensive linemen shined.
That was particularly true of defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who took several snaps at defensive tackle, against guards, and used his long arms and power to win to the inside and get a run at the quarterback. (Those reps were captured during our live Training Camp Report; scroll to the 26:25 mark to see the first one.)
Head Coach Dirk Koetter had noted those strengths in Pierre-Paul's game after Saturday's practice, though at the time he was talking about the veteran defender's strong work against the run. On Sunday, he put them to use as a pass-rusher, too.
"He's got those long arms, and then he's so powerful," said Koetter. "I was just watching a clip today on a big play where the tight end slices back across the line, they were playing the Rams last year. He just picked the tight end up and walked him right back into the ball carrier."
The Buccaneers nabbed Pierre-Paul from the Giants in an offseason trade as part of their overhaul up front. Also new to town are former Eagles Vinny Curry and Beau Allen, former Bear Mitch Unrein and first-round draft pick Vita Vea. Those additions plus the return to health of third-year edge-rusher Noah Spence – who also had one eye-opening rep during Sunday's one-on-one drill, showing off his great speed – give the Bucs a much deeper well of talent on the defensive front. That makes the already entertaining one-on-one drills even more of a must-watch, and it should make the team better on both sides of the line.
"I think it also creates good competition on both the O-Line and the D-Line," said Koetter, who was watching a nine-on-seven drill at the time and was eager to review the one-on-ones on the practice tape. "If you watched one-on-one pass and one-on-one run, O-Line versus D-Line, yesterday – I didn't get a chance to see it yet today – there were some really good battles there. You go down the line and you've got Donovan Smith versus JPP, and then over here you've got Gerald McCoy versus Caleb Benenoch. We've got great competition on both lines and that's going to make everybody better."
The intensity of the competition tends to go up a notch during one-on-ones and both sides clearly care about the results. After one of Pierre-Paul's best reps, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy walked over and gave him a bear hug. Curry thinks that sort of intensity on the practice field can make a difference in the final results on in-season Sundays.
"You know, at this point, it's the National Football League, everybody is good," he said. "It comes down to discipline and how bad do you want it. If you go out there and put your heart on the line and everybody is on the same page, that's really where you get your click in. That's really where you get, 'Damn, that team is fun to watch.' When everyone is on the same page and everyone's got one goal in mind, you know, one heartbeat one sound. That's when it's like, 'Oh, that team is fun to watch.'"
- Vea didn't get an opportunity to participate in that one-on-one drill because he had suffered a lower-leg injury earlier in the morning, before the team moved indoors. Vea was taken to the training room and there was no immediate report on his status after practice. Later, tackle Leonard Wester sustained a leg injury of his own when he was rolled on in a pile-up of players.
"When we practice now, there's going to be injuries, right?" said Koetter, who addresses the media right after practice, before he's had an opportunity to visit the training room. "There's going to be injuries. I'm not going to know what the injuries are until I get off the field. Hopefully everybody's good but we'll have to see when I get in there."
Prior to Sunday – which, again, was the first padded practice of the year – the Buccaneers had only two players sitting out due to injuries. Linebacker Kendell Beckwith is on the active/non-football-injury list as he continues to recover from an ankle fracture suffered in a car accident in the spring. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves will miss several days after needing stitches to close a laceration he got from a teammates' spikes on Friday.
- On Saturday, we provided an update on rookie cornerback M.J. Stewart, who is off to a fast start in his first NFL training camp. Stewart had primarily drawn attention for his work in the passing game, which included an interception on Saturday. On Sunday, he stood out again, this time in run defense as the addition of pads added teeth to the nine-on-seven run periods.
"M.J., you know the thing that gives him an edge is he's smart," said Koetter. "Some guys when they come in here they're swimming in terminology. That's not the case [with Stewart], he knows what he's doing. The first play of inside run he had a big hit on Ronald Jones, got the ball out, so that was a nice play. And he's also playing two positions. Versatility is big."
- In 2016, in the Buccaneers' first year with Dirk Koetter as head coach and Mike Smith as defensive coordinator, the defense finished strong, ranking among the league's best in yards and points allowed over the final eight weeks. That made last year's rough showing something of a surprise. Nowhere was the downturn more complete than on third downs. In 2016, Tampa Bay led the league in that category, allowing only 34.4% of third downs to be converted. Last year, the Buccaneers were last in that category, at 48.1%.
The Buccaneers put an emphasis on third downs in practice on Sunday. The team made a series of offseason moves to improve its 32nd-ranked pass defense, and that should help on third downs. But Koetter says the first step in getting those numbers back in order is to stop the run.
"Well, you're trying to get them on third-and-as-long-as-possible," he said. "The percentages go down based off it's third-and-two or third-and-10. So if you do well on first and second you've got a better chance on third. We went from first in the league on defense two years ago to last [place] last year. We had a ton of third downs scripted in there today, both sides. You win some on the offense and you win some on the defense."