TAMPA — Bucs defensive line coach Brentson Buckner sat Gerald McCoy down the other day and stated the obvious: He no longer has to wear a cape and put the defense on his back.
"Because I don't need a Superman,'' Buckner said. "I need a bunch of Super Friends that can work well together.''
McCoy is now 30 and entering his ninth season, the last six of which have ended with him playing in the Pro Bowl. He's led the team in sacks every year since 2013. But he has experienced a winning season only twice and the Bucs never earned a spot in the postseason during his career.
"I sat down and told him, 'The way you're going to improve your game, is to mentally evolve your game even more,'" Buckner said. "And he wants it. He's hungry for it because for eight years, he's done the same thing and been successful but it hasn't showed up for the team. Now I'm challenging him personally to go to that next level. Not get stronger, not get faster but play the game up here. Know what they're going to do with you before it happens. Be smarter about it. Embrace your teammates around you and then just watch it grow."
After watching the Bucs finish last in the league in total defense, sacks and third-down conversion percentage, general manager Jason Licht and his staff did a complete rebuild of the defensive line around McCoy.
They started by signing free agent defensive tackles Beau Allen (Eagles) and Mitch Unrein (Bears). Then they signed Allen's teammate, defensive end Vinny Curry, from the Super Bowl champions. The biggest headline came when the Bucs traded for Giants defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul. Finally, Licht used the 12th overall pick in the draft to select Washington defensive tackle Vita Vea.
Defensive coordinator Mike Smith won't sugarcoat how bad the Bucs defense was a year ago.
"It's got to be a hell of a lot better than what we put out there last year," Smith said Wednesday. "I've said it many times. The numbers are not anywhere close to what we've got to do. We've got to be more consistent in everything we do and it starts in the meeting rooms and building trust with one another across the board. I think that's the most important thing."
What the Bucs 2018 defense will look like is anybody's guess. Smith isn't saying. McCoy has thrived playing in a 4-3 scheme as an under tackle. That means he plays on the weakside of the defense, lining up on the side of the ball away from the tight end. His main job is to pressure the quarterback and stop the run from the weakside gap between the guard and center.
"Again, I think it's going to be evolving," Smith said. "We know this. Gerald McCoy has been a Pro Bowl player for a long time. He's obviously the best player on our defense. But we're not going to pigeonhole and say we're going to build it around one person. We're going to build it around what gives us the best opportunity to succeed."
But make no mistake, the Bucs know the success of the defense depends on controlling the line of scrimmage and pressuring the quarterback. In a star-studded quarterback division that includes the Saints' Drew Brees, the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Panthers' Cam Newton, Buckner knows how his defensive line plays will affect the whole product.
A year ago, the secondary was torched for 4,169 passing yards, the most in the NFL.
"We just had that talk today and I was telling those guys, I've never blamed a defensive back for a long pass or giving up a whole bunch of yardage, because we're closest to the quarterback before the receiver is on the route," Buckner said. "So we affect everybody's job. We stop the run and we keep the linebackers free — their job is better. We get to the quarterback, the defensive backs' jobs are better. With that type of responsibility, we've got to work hard and expect it from ourselves and not just look for anybody.
"We're the big brothers. We're the foundation. If you build a house on a shaky foundation, I don't care how many bells and whistles you put on it, it's going to collapse. So we come in and we're laying the foundation so that (Smith) can do whatever he wants to on this defensive line. That's what we're working for."