TAMPA, Fla. — Gerald McCoy was dominant against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night, a sight that was obvious to anyone with a basic understanding of the sport. He was quick off the snap. He was fast with his feet. He was unforgiving in his pursuit of quarterback Ryan Tannehill. He forced a fumble early in the second quarter that resulted in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ first touchdown after a four-play, 25-yard drive.
McCoy’s three-tackle, one-sack display in a little more than a quarter at Raymond James Stadium confirmed a growing thought: This should be a monster fall for the fifth-year defensive tackle if he stays healthy. If no hiccups occur, he will be a star within coach Lovie Smith’s scheme, a true face of the new Bucs in every sense of the term.
Still, other defensive-line presences, particularly high-dollar free-agent additions like end Michael Johnson and tackle Clinton McDonald, must lift their production to make the Bucs’ front four all it can be. McCoy’s streak of terror must become a group act.
"It’s very important," McDonald said. "We pride ourselves on calling ourselves rush men. That’s what we’ve got to do."
McCoy’s impressive start has concealed the fact that Johnson and McDonald have made little impression after two preseason games. McDonald has four tackles but no sacks, and Johnson has no stats outside of a fumble recovery following McCoy’s sack of Tannehill.
That’s not to say both won’t grow into effective players in the regular season. Both have a history of creating pressure. Johnson had a career-high 11 1/2 sacks with the Cincinnati Bengals in 2012, and McDonald had all 5 1/2 sacks of his four-year career last season with the Seattle Seahawks.
Still, in order for McCoy to reach another level, and for Bucs defensive linemen to add depth to their disruption, Johnson and McDonald must find ways to show flashes as well.
"We can talk forever about Gerald, and we should based on his play," Smith said. "But Clinton McDonald has really played well too. But he’s next to Gerald, so he has to get used to people (saying), ‘Oh yeah, Clinton, let’s talk to you a little bit too.’ Michael has done some good things. Again, I’m pleased with where we are, and we haven’t played our best ball. Clinton McDonald, we brought him in for a reason, to play next to Gerald, although Akeem Spence has played well. Michael was supposed to come in here to be able to give us pressure from the outside. None of the guys have done anything for us to think otherwise right now."
Both Johnson and McDonald must be better, though. They can’t become invisible with a chance to feature their pass-rushing skills within the Bucs’ new defense. On Monday, in the locker room at One Buc Place with the third preseason game against the Buffalo Bills five days away, Johnson and McDonald spoke like men aware of their roles.
"We know Gerald is going to do his thing," Johnson said. "Clinton came in, and he’s done a great job as well. I’m just trying to get myself to get rolling, and we will sure help (Gerald). Because AC (defensive end Adrian Clayborn) is doing a great job, and we’ve got guys behind us who can all come in and rush as well."
"Our (defensive line) coach, Joe Cullen, he emphasizes the fact of actually getting after the quarterback and putting pressure and making him throw the ball away," McDonald said. "Hits, sacks and things like that. So it’s very important for all four of us to work together — AC, myself, Mike and Gerald — to get to the quarterback."
It’s refreshing to hear an emphasis placed on defensive line pressure under Smith. The Bucs were forgettable in the area last year with former coach Greg Schiano, and it’s largely why they finished tied for 23rd in the league in sacks with 35. McCoy was a beast with a career-high 9 1/2, but others within the group made few memories.
That’s why this is a big year for Johnson and McDonald. They were signed in the offseason to make immediate impacts as upgrades from what the Bucs fielded at their positions in 2013. They’re symbols of Smith’s desire to win fast and win now, and both men were early targets in the coach’s strategy to shape the Bucs through free agency.
Johnson, for one, must show that his 3 1/2-sack effort last year was an anomaly. He must become a force off the edge for Smith’s scheme to be successful. He can’t become another Daniel Te’o-Nesheim, who did a fine disappearing act for Tampa Bay last season.
"Definitely want to get back to double digits, man," Johnson said of his sack-total goal. "With this defense and the way they’ve got us playing, that shouldn’t be a problem. So it will be exciting this year to go out and do that."
McDonald, meanwhile, must learn to excel within McCoy’s large shadow. This will remain McCoy’s defense, but McDonald can thrive if he learns to build off his breakout season last year as a pass rusher. He can’t regress. He can’t fall into a trap of becoming complacent with McCoy growing as a complete player only feet away.
"You always want to do better than your previous year, so the scheme that we’re going into this year, it should help out a lot with that," McDonald said.
"It’s always a friendly competition between us all. It was no different in Seattle. Guys would make sacks, make plays. … It puts an emphasis (on), ‘You know what? This guy, he’s putting us on his back. So it’s time for us to step up too.’"
McCoy will be the guy who puts the Bucs’ defense on his back all year. That fact has become obvious through Tampa Bay’s first two preseason games, and the development should excite Smith and his staff. McCoy has a chance to become an elite player for years. He’s the right combination of talent and charisma for Smith and general manager Jason Licht to build their franchise around.
But the Bucs’ defense will be much more dangerous, much more effective, if Johnson and McDonald find niches as well. Their development will be a process, but the discovery must yield results.
"Once they start doing their job on a consistent basis, I think it will maybe take some pressure off of Gerald," Bucs linebacker Jonathan Casillas said. "But if I’m an offensive coordinator, I need to know where 93’s at. … He’s playing lights out. He’s playing out of his mind, out of this world. He’s going to be the reason why we go far on this defense."
They’ll go longer distances if Johnson and McDonald become dominant too. Both players know it, which makes their desire to complement McCoy’s growing reputation all the more urgent.