TAMPA — The lovefest with 2010 first-round draft pick Gerald McCoy includes dreams of double-digit sacks, forced fumbles and quarterbacks running for their lives.
But the reality is that for the Bucs defense to be better this season, the defensive tackle from Oklahoma is going to have to play his best against the run.
Tampa Bay was last in the NFL in 2009 in rushing defense, yielding a clock-eating 158.2 average yards per game, 4.8 yards per carry. That enabled teams to average 65 offensive plays per game.
That, folks, is how you go 3-13.
McCoy is known for his explosive first step and ability to penetrate. But at 6 feet 4 and 305 pounds, even he had doubts about how he would physically hold on double teams against larger, more experienced men.
"I've been holding my own against the run, so I'll be okay," McCoy said. "I was a little nervous about that. I knew I could rush the passer. But two 335-pound guys coming at you when you're only 305? That can be a little rough. But you've got to hold it to play this game."
At least McCoy won't have to do it alone. The Bucs doubled down in the draft at the defensive tackle position, taking UCLA's Brian Price in the second round. Price was impressive the first few days of training camp, but a recurring hamstring strain has forced him to miss too many practices, and he's not scheduled to play in tonight's preseason opener at Miami.
Fortunately, second-year pro Roy Miller, a Big 12 rival of McCoy's from Texas, has anchored the nose tackle position next to McCoy.
The Bucs' first-team defense might make only a cameo appearance tonight at Sun Life Stadium, but the Dolphins should provide a great test. Miami has invested heavily in its offensive line and was fourth in the league in rushing, averaging 139.4 yards per game behind Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams last season.
"I'll be watching him really closely," coach Raheem Morris said of McCoy. "For me, his first real test is when he goes out there against … live people and you get a chance to see him play behind his pads, with his pads, and see how physical he's going to be, how stout he's going to be. This is a great team to do it against. The Miami Dolphins are one of the most physical teams in the NFL. … It'll be a great test for our young players."
Perhaps the biggest help for the Bucs is that Morris returned the defense to its one-gap, attacking scheme the final six games last season, and players responded by limiting teams to an average of 17 points per game.
Rather than hold the line of scrimmage, players such as McCoy will try to get upfield and re-establish it.
"Sometimes they may get out of their gap," linebacker Barrett Ruud said. "But if they're able to explode upfield, it takes up people, and I can always read off that. It only does good things when you cause disruption."
tonight's scratches: Along with Price, not making the trip to Miami were tight end Kellen Winslow (knee), cornerback Aqib Talib (personal), cornerback Myron Lewis (hamstring), running back Clifton Smith (hamstring) and safety De'von Hall (undisclosed injury). The Bucs said Winslow's absence is precautionary. He has practiced regularly during the past week and apparently could have played. Winslow is expected to play next week against the Chiefs. Talib's absence is for a personal matter.
Times staff writer Stephen F. Holder contributed to this report.