Bucs defensive line puts together its best collective game
Eduardo Encina , Tampa Bay Times, published 26 November 2018

Before pregame introductions Sunday, Gerald McCoy called his fellow starting defensive linemen together and proposed they run onto the field as a group instead of one-by-one as their names were announced. McCoy said the gesture was symbolic of the mentality the Bucs defensive line must have moving forward, that they identify as one unit instead of individual players.

And after the way the line played in the Bucs' 27-9 win over the San Francisco 49ers, expect the linemen to continue to run onto the field together. "I've just been thinking," McCoy said. "We have a lot of talent up front, but it only works when you work together, when you play for the man next to you. We're not (Jason Pierre-Paul), we're not Gerald McCoy, we're not Vita Vea or Beau Allen. We're the Bucs defensive line. And from this point moving forward, for the rest of this year and from this point, it's going to be how we come out moving forward."

Rookie tackle Vita Vea called McCoy's idea "dope." "That set the mood for everybody, not just us, but for the whole team, because I don't think anyone expected it," Vea said. "It was a last-minute thing. So when we did it and went out there, the whole team was pumped up. It was a good call."

That set the stage for the defensive line's best performance of the season, as the Bucs recorded six tackles for a loss including four sacks and nine quarterback hits on 49ers rookie quarterback Nick Mullens. "I thought (the pressure on the quarterback) was really big in the first half," Bucs head coach Dirk Koetter said. "We told them at halftime, if we could just maintain that because we hit him a lot more times than the four sacks that will show up on the (stat) sheet. We hit him a lot, and that's going to wear on a guy for sure."

After the Bucs spent the offseason upgrading their defensive front through free agency and the draft, the line's production hasn't met expectations. Sunday showed a flash of the front four's promise. It also marked the best game of Vea's young career. Vea, the team's first-round pick this season, went into the contest having just three tackles in seven games, his impact diminished because he's had trouble shedding blocks.

But against the 49ers, Vea logged four tackles. That included three for a loss, including his first pro quarterback sack. Two of Vea's three tackles for a loss came on first-down plays, which put the 49ers into long-yardage situations quickly. His sack of Mullens in the fourth quarter was a seven-yard loss, creating a third-and-26 for San Francisco. "It's mainly going out there and not thinking as much," Vea said. "Try to just go out there and play. Just trying to trust my ability, trust the coaching."

Vea, McCoy, Pierre-Paul and Carl Nassib each recorded a sack, and Pierre-Paul's gave him 10.5 on the season, making him the first Bucs player to record a double-digit sack total since Simeon Rice in 2005. Pierre-Paul, who left the game briefly with a knee injury but returned to finish the game, struggled to put the accomplishment into words after the game but received an assist from McCoy, who put his hand around Pierre-Paul while crashing his postgame interview.

"I'll answer for him," said McCoy, who came within a half-sack of 10 in 2013. "Listen, I've been here a long time, and for me to see this happen is very special. He's going to downplay it, I'm not. It's very special and something we haven't seen in a long time. This dude deserves everything coming his way, and I love him. I kind of got emotional when he got his 10th sack.

"That was the difference today," McCoy continued. "Play as a unit, play for the guy next to you. When the man next to you eats, it makes you feel that much better. That's why I got emotional for him to get it. I just wanted somebody to get it."

And on Sunday, veterans like Pierre-Paul and McCoy deferred the spotlight to Vea. "I'm happy for him," McCoy said. "He's been working hard. (Defensive line) coach (Brentson Buckner's) been on him, everybody's been on him. But he pushed through and played hard today. I'm happy for him. It's always exciting to see rookie's have big games."

Asked why Vea had such a strong game, Koetter said that Bucs general manager Jason Licht had a "secret talk" with him this week. "I'll give him a complete list of guys to talk to next week," Koetter deadpanned.

Vea didn't want to give the details of the conversation between him and the GM who selected him in the first round. "I plead the fifth," Vea said. "He did, though. He helped me a lot."

Whatever it was, it worked.