It was night and day from a year ago.
The approach to coaching defensive line from new Bucs assistant coach Brentson Buckner is a far cry from what it was last year when Jay Hayes presided over a unit that rarely got to the quarterback, as Tampa Bay notched a league-low 22 sacks.
Hayes had his defensive linemen shuffle, flipping their hips and going laterally down the line of scrimmage. It’s a popular technique in football – it’s not foreign.
But it wasn’t effective last year in stopping the run or getting to the quarterback. It drove me nuts, as it did Hall of Fame defensive tackle Warren Sapp from my conversations with him last year watching the ineptitude of the Bucs defensive line on a weekly basis.
Buckner’s approach is a breath of fresh air and his style of defensive line play is more akin to that of Rod Marinelli and Joe Cullen in that he wants his linemen to get up the field.
“I’m not worried about hips,” Buckner said. “This is football! In the NFL it’s a straight line.”
By virtue of being the Bucs’ first-round pick, defensive tackle Vita Vea was first in line for D-line drills. That made him Buckner’s guinea pig and he didn’t have the benefit from watching other players do the drill and learn from their mistakes and Buckner’s corrections.
That also meant that he took the brunt of Buckner’s critiques.
Quite a few of Buckner’s new pupils, including Vea, were taught to flip their hips wide when engaging offensive linemen. Buckner tried to get his men to quickly learn to forget that method and just strike with arms extended and drive your legs straight ahead, but old habits die hard.
“Straight line!” Buckner shouted at Vea and others when they wouldn’t conform to his teaching. “Now you’re pissing me off! Straight line! This is football – we don’t take the path of least resistance!”
Buckner doesn’t have the drill sergeant mentality that Marinelli and Cullen had when they were in Tampa Bay, but he’s certainly more vocal and emphatic than Hayes was. When Vea and others got a drill right he was very encouraging.
“Do it right, do it light,” Buckner said. “Do it wrong, do it long.”
Vea appreciated the hard coaching from Buckner, and knows that it’s only going to make him better because of it.
“He’s a great guy,” Vea said of Buckner. “He’s definitely pushing us to our limits. That’s what you need at this level – someone to push you to get better and better every day.”
“You always need someone like that to push you. You don’t want someone to be your friend out there on the field. You want someone to be pushing you and getting tired and getting better every day.”
Vea admitted that the techniques he learned at the University of Washington were the exact opposite of the ones Buckner taught him on Friday, which means he could have a steep learning curve if he doesn’t pick it up quickly.
“It’s definitely a lot different,” Vea said. “But he’s actually showing you the actual technique that should be used in the NFL.”
Buckner worked on getting Vea and the rookie defensive linemen to strike hard with their hands and then extend their arms into the offensive lineman, driving him backwards while keeping good pad level.
“You’ve got to be violent with your hands,” Buckner said. “Everything we do, we have to be violent and put your hands through his pads.”
The Bucs rookie mini-camp was conducted without pads on a warm, partly cloudy day at One Buccaneer Place, but Buckner wants Vea to get in the NFL mindset as quickly as possible. During one rep, Vea wasn’t going 100 percent because there were no pads, but that didn’t please the demanding Buckner.
“Run through him!” Buckner said. “You’re going about 65 percent! Push him! Go get him! You’re a grown ass man!”
When Buckner’s troops didn’t extend their arms like he wanted, he immediately got on Vea or whoever was the guilty party.
“Extension!” Buckner said. “There is no such thing as (offensive) holding in the NFL, but if you want to get held, keep your arms down here.”
After practice, Vea was asked about what he learned from Buckner.
“You have to use your hands,” Vea said. “I was always coached that if you don’t use your hands you might as well cut them off. You need them to make the tackle and get off blocks.
“He told us we were going to go out there and get straight to work. We knew what we were getting into today and he told us to get our minds right for practice.”
Buckner went right to work on Vea, who played with better pad level than expected, and the rest of the rookie defensive linemen and made quite a favorable first impression. It’s too early to suggest that the Bucs are going to get 40 sacks this year after getting just 22 last year, but with Buckner’s presence and his up-the-field coaching style it’s safe to suggest that Tampa Bay’s sack total is going to be much closer to 40 than it is 22.
As for Vea, it was a good first day, but even he admitted that his conditioning wasn’t tested that much as it wasn’t as hot and humid as he was expecting.
“It was pretty good – today we had some cloud cover,” Vea said. “I was telling everybody I brought Seattle with me. Hopefully it’s here for a while.”