Think of Gerald McCoy as Josh Freeman. Think of the leadership. Think of the skills. Think of the potential.
Think of Mason Foster as LeGarrette Blount. Think of the power. Think of the fury. Think of the volume of the impact.
Think of Adrian Clayborn as Mike Williams. Think of the burst. Think of the quickness. Think of the chip on the shoulder.
Yep, there go those Bucs again.
Growing right before your eyes.
This time the kids are on the other side of the ball. This time youth has added instant energy and significant improvement. This time you are able to squint your eyes and think about what the future means to the Bucs' defense.
Why, look there. It's the rebirth of the bruise.
A year ago it was the young, flashy offense of the Bucs that captured the imagination of Tampa Bay. There had never been a quarterback quite like Freeman, or a runner quite like Blount, or a receiver quite like Williams. If you saw them together, you could not help but think of the touchdowns to come.
Now the youth has shifted back to the defense, and it is McCoy, Foster and Clayborn (plus a few others) who allow you to wonder just how good they can become and just how nasty. You cannot help but think about the future.
You know, like a few hours from now against the 49ers.
Already you can see the clues. There is talent here, and there is ferocity.
Consider the past 10 quarters. Since halftime of the Minnesota game Sept. 18, the Bucs have been among the best defenses in the NFL. Granted, it is early, and granted, Curtis Painter doesn't have enough experience and Donovan McNabb has too much. That said, production is production, and it has been quite some time since the Bucs' defense has strung together 10 quarters such as the past 10.
Over the past 2½ games, for instance, the Bucs have given up only three touchdowns. They have given up 33 points in all. That's a pace of 13.2 points per game, which would lead the league in scoring defense.
Over the past 2½ games, the Bucs have given up only 141 yards rushing … total. That's a pace of 52 yards per game.
Over the past 2½ games, the Bucs have nine sacks and five takeaways, and they've held opponents to a success rate of 30 percent on third down. Even with the big plays they have given up against Indianapolis and Atlanta, teams are averaging 308 yards a game against them in the past 10 quarters. Only seven teams are allowing a lower average for the season.
In other words, you can see the beginning of a defense that has a chance to grow into something very good. If Tampa Bay knows anything, it knows what a good defense looks like.
"We're playing faster," said Bucs coach Raheem Morris. "We're playing better. They're growing together.
"It could be the same as our offense (last year). I told McCoy the other day, we need a center face on our defense, the same as Freeman was on our offense. You're talking about Simeon Rice, Warren Sapp, Derrick Brooks. That's the future you hope to have with these guys, that type of success."
It is much to ask, and it is too soon to ask it. An NFL pileup is a difficult classroom for rookies and second-year men. So far, however, you have to like the flashes you have seen.
"You'd have to say that McCoy is Freeman," Morris said. "The undertackle is so important when you're running our defense. Foster is Blount, that kind of impact. Then you have Clayborn out on the edge."
Yes, there are tests ahead, Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers and Cam Newton and Matt Ryan and the rest. Yes, there is still proving to do and improving. Defense is like baby teeth. It takes time, and it includes pain, and sometimes wailing is involved.
On the other hand, did you see this kind of athleticism last year? Did you think about the future and smile?
"No doubt, we can be elite," McCoy said. "Right now we're playing well enough to win, but we're not where we need to be."
"The thing about Foster is that he's not just a player; he's a playmaker. And Clayborn is bringing that Simeon Rice feel back. People ask why he's hitting people like that. It's because he's angry. He's upset that you feel like you can block him. Every week he's letting you guys know that he's still upset."
"I don't want to talk about myself. I'm just trying to get better. If this defense is going to be good, the undertackle has to be on fire."
There are others. Brian Price, if he can stay healthy. Da'Quan Bowers. E.J. Biggers.
"I think they're all fighting to be the center face," Morris said.
Lately, that face looks a little younger, a little meaner.
Perhaps, just perhaps, it is starting to look a bit like the defense you used to know.