For nearly a decade the Buccaneers were a defensive stalwart in the NFL. The team introduced the league to the Tampa-2 and was led by three potential Hall-of-Famers in John Lynch, Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks.
A lot has changed since then, after a bit of a decline the Bucs have slapped the dreaded ‘rebuilding’ label on the defense. This season the Bucs D has been erratic to say the least, ranging from slightly above average to just piss poor, the young defensive unit has really struggled this year. They currently rank 31st against the the run and are dead last in the NFL with just four sacks through five games. But the front office and coaching staff know what they have too. They have a talented young unit with a number of good pieces in place.
In many ways this young defensive unit can learn from the defenses of a decade ago. That’s why this week, after a particularly jarring defeat to the division rival Saints, the coaching staff has taken to showing highlight films of those vaunted defensive units of yesteryear in an attempt to inspire this young defense into better play. Gerald McCoy for one, is hopeful this Bucs team can grow into their potential:
"“We’re going to grow as a family,” he said. “We’re the second youngest team in the league and we’re going to grow that way. Everybody talks about how the old Bucs did it, blah, blah, blah. That’s fine. They did do it their way and they did it great. But they grew to that.”"
In fact, McCoy didn’t stop there. He went further in his attempt to differentiate himself and this young unit from past defenses:
"“I can’t be Sapp,” McCoy said. “I don’t know why people keep expecting me to be. I’m Gerald McCoy. That’s Warren Sapp. He’s 5-nothing, I’m 6-4. That’s a big difference. We are who we are.”"
As I said earlier today, this last comment comes off as a little bit hubristic. For a period Warren Sapp was the most dominant lineman in football. There are far worse players one could be compared to than a guy who will one day end up enshrined in Canton. Sapp used to sack then-division rival Brett Favre of the Packers so much that the two had a highly publicized, somewhat tongue-in-cheek rivalry start. This was despite the fact Sapp was a D-Tackle. Maybe McCoy needs to focus on getting to any quarterback one time before throwing a five-foot-nothing jab Sapp’s way.
BUT! I do get his point. He’s not the same body type or player type as Sapp. They have very different games and no young player wants to be linked or overshadowed by another player from his franchises’ past. I just think McCoy needs to work on the way he makes his point in this case.
I also think maybe McCoy missed the broader point a little bit, the old Bucs D took time to gel and mature too. It’s not as if Brooks and Sapp came in the first year and the team took off. There were growing pains, the team took its lumps. Players had bad games, had bad seasons before it finally clicked. The most famous example is Ronde Barber who after not playing at all his rookie season gave up three touchdowns in his debut as a starter during his second year. He’s arguably the best corner in Bucs history now. The point was not that this Bucs defense is just like the D’s of old, it’s that the vaunted D’s of old had to grow into those great units too. It didn’t just happen overnight.
Another member of the great Buc defenses, Derrick Brooks, concurs. On his weekly radio spot yesterday on 620 AM in Tampa, Brooks offered up a very similar assessment. Saying that he sees good things on film and believes the run defense will improve, but he also mentioned there’s going to be a learning curve with such a young unit. Brooks greater frustration came with the pass rush, which he pegged with the tendency to over-scheme. In Brooks’ mind the problem is merely physicality:
"“You need a front four (that) just line up and whoop the guy in front of you.”"
And maybe that’s all Gerald McCoy should have taken from the footage of the old defensive units. He doesn’t have to be Warren Sapp, he just needs to line up like Warren used to and whoop the guy in front of him. Everyone on the line needs to. When the Bucs defensive line finally gets that and can get out of its own way, it will finally begin to improve noticeably.