FAB 2. Buckner’s Attitude Makes Him The Right Fit For Bucs’ D-Line
I had no idea who the Buccaneers were going to hire to replace defensive line coach Jay Hayes. All of the candidates that they interviewed for the job made sense.
It was only right to give Tampa Bay assistant defensive line coach Paul Spicer an opportunity to interview. He might have been part of the problem last year as Tampa Bay’s defense only produced a league-low 22 sacks, or Spicer might have been simply following Hayes’ orders and he might have had some ideas and philosophies that were 180 degrees in the opposite direction.
Former Colts defensive coordinator Ted Monachino made sense from a familiarity standpoint. He coached with Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter and defensive coordinator Mike Smith in Jacksonville as the team’s defensive line coach, and before that, he was with Koetter in his college stops at Boise State and Arizona State.
The Bucs dipped into the college ranks to interview former Missouri defensive line guru and current Miami D-line coach Craig Kuligowksi. In his 15 years at Mizzou, Kuligowski produced four first-round defensive linemen and 24 defensive linemen that had All-Conference honors in either the Big 12 or the SEC.
But, the one that made the most sense was former Arizona defensive line coach Brentson Buckner, a former NFL defensive tackle that spent plenty of years battling the Buccaneers while in Carolina as a member of the NFC South rival Panthers. Tampa Bay general manager Jason Licht knew Buckner from their days together with the Cardinals in 2013, and Buckner received a glowing recommendation from former Arizona head coach Bruce Arians, who retired after the 2017 season.
Buckner played in Cincinnati for a season while Bucs linebackers coach Mark Duffner was there, and he played a year in San Francisco when defensive backs coach Brett Maxie was an assistant coach with the 49ers. The guess here is that they also gave Buckner a thumbs-up.
But, it wasn’t as if Buckner needed votes of confidence from Bucs staffers. His track record with the Cardinals speaks volumes. From 2013-17, Arizona recorded 203 sacks, which tied for the seventh-most in the NFL. In 2016, the Cardinals led the league with 48 sacks, which was the third-highest single-season mark in franchise history. Defensive lineman Calais Campbell, who made two Pro Bowls (2014-15) under Buckner’s tutelage, led the team with eight sacks that season.
The Cardinals defense ranked in the top six of the NFL in yards allowed per game in four of Buckner’s five seasons with the team, while it ranked in the top seven in points allowed per game in three of those years. He instilled toughness and a bad-ass mentality into his unit, and that’s been the missing element in Tampa Bay’s defensive line over the years.
During his press conference, I asked Buckner what his vision is for his unit.
“The vision for this defensive line is to be physically and mentally tough,” Buckner said. “When you turn on that film, you’re going to see four guys recklessly attacking the guy in front of them like their lives depend on it. When they can’t do it, the next guy behind them is going to come in and do it. We’re going to work well together. We’re going to hunt until the whistle blows. We don’t want anyone to feel comfortable.
“All week long, that offensive line is telling their coach and their running back and quarterback that they can run this play and block those guys. We’re going to take that personally. We’re not going to go out there looking for a fight. We’re going to go out there inviting a fight when that ball is snapped because we want to be vicious. We want our play to precede us when we walk into a stadium. We don’t want other teams to say, ‘What are the Bucs going to give us today?’ We want to them to know that when the Bucs step on the field, it’s going to be a battle. We might not win them all, but your training room is going to look like we did.”
That’s the kind of bad-ass mentality that legendary Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp would appreciate. It’s been my experience in covering an NFL team for over two decades that the best defensive line coaches are like drill sergeants.
Those guys were intense, yellers and screamers, and I didn’t get the sense Hayes had that type of intensity and his quiet demeanor felt out of place to me. I’m not trying to slight Hayes, whose track record in Cincinnati was quite good, but it just didn’t seem like he had the right type of attitude that was needed in Tampa Bay. Sapp felt the same way about him, too.
Based on what I know about Buckner from Arizona and his initial press conference with the Bucs, I think Buckner has the exact kind of attitude that is needed in Tampa Bay. But, it’s not just about his attitude. It’s about his results.
Buckner got all kinds of players to produce in Arizona. Defensive tackle Darnell Dockett was considered a bit of a loose cannon and a freelancer, and Buckner reined him in and made him play within the scheme.
He was able to help John Abraham lead the Cardinals with 11.5 sacks in 2013, squeezing one final year’s worth of production out of that aging veteran. Abraham’s sack total hadn’t been that high in four years. Campbell had a career-high nine sacks that year in Buckner’s first season on the staff.
The next year saw Alex Okafor have a breakout season with eight sacks in his second year in the league. In 2015, Buckner helped 36-year old Dwight Freeney post a team-high eight sacks, which was the most he had produced since he had 8.5 with the Colts in 2011.
In 2016, Buckner developed Markus Golden into a double-digit sack producer with 12.5 QB captures in a breakthrough season. Newly imported edge rusher Chandler Jones, who arrived via a trade with New England, was nicely integrated into the defensive scheme and recorded 11 sacks. Meanwhile, Campbell had eight sacks in another productive season.
Last year, Buckner didn’t have Golden to work with due to a torn ACL that cost him the entire 2017 campaign, but Jones stepped up with a career year, leading the NFL in sacks with 17. Buckner also squeezed some production out of veteran Corey Peters and undrafted free agent Olsen Pierre, who had an impressive rookie season with 5.5 sacks and a forced fumble.
The fact that Buckner has gotten production out of past-their-prime vets, Pro Bowlers, premium draft picks, undrafted free agents and reclamation projects is a good sign for Tampa Bay. Buckner is a hands-on technician, using himself and his experience in the league to the benefit of his players. But what I think will help Tampa Bay’s defensive line more than anything is his tenacious attitude and mentality.
Speaking of attitude, it was great hearing the stories from Buckner’s days in Carolina when he and Kris Jenkins took verbal shots at Sapp from and vice versa back in the 2000s.
“My first year at Carolina we went 1-15. The next year, they changed the division and we went 7-9 and Tampa won the Super Bowl, so I came right down here for the first home playoff game and sat in the stands and watched. Me, Kris Jenkins, Mike Rucker and Julius Peppers, as much as we disliked Warren Sapp, we admired what they did. We wanted to see the atmosphere that they would create when they came out, the energy with which they played with. To see those guys run out of that tunnel on Sunday, you thought it was an earthquake. I remember calling Mike Rucker from the stands and telling him that this is what we had to create in Carolina. They did that with their front four. It wasn’t the quarterback running out, wasn’t the star running back. It was the defensive line that was being introduced. We sat back marveling and saying that we wanted to model ourselves after them and get to the point where when we stood toe to toe, we wanted to be the better model. That’s what we did and it was a mutual respect that created competitive hatred between one another but it was all out of respect. We wanted what those guys had created here [in Tampa] and we tried our best to get it.
“I wanted it [the competitiveness]. I admired Sapp because he would do those little jabs knowing that the other team would come back and then his guys would step up to the occasion. So I said, ‘Alright let’s poke the lion a little bit.’ I have this big 320-pound, 6-foot-4 young buck and he’s the best defensive tackle and I knew Sapp would come out. That would drive Jenkins because he was a quiet guy and that would drive him because he would get mad if Sapp said something about me. Like I said, I looked at that whole formula. I looked at the way Sapp carried himself and the way that Simeon Rice was just cooler than the other side of the pillow. I looked at [Anthony] ‘Booger’ McFarland and how those guys would just play off of one another. Everyone had their own distinct role and we would try to mimic ourselves after them.”
Not only does Buckner know how to coach defensive linemen, he also knows how to change the culture. He was instrumental in doing that in Carolina when he played for the Panthers, and he also did it in Arizona where the Cardinals were 10-6 in his first season as their defensive line coach, followed by two playoff berths and 11-5 and 13-3 records over the next two seasons.
There is a losing culture at One Buccaneer Place and I have a feeling that Buckner is going to be instrumental in changing that sooner rather than later. Kudos to Koetter and Licht for what appears to be a real quality hire and an upgrade to their coaching staff.