TAMPA, Fla. -- After losing three straight games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers fired defensive coordinator Mike Smith and promoted linebackers coach Mark Duffner. One player they can count on to help ease the transition is defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who has exceeded expectations since being acquired in a trade from the New York Giants this past offseason.
Pierre-Paul has five sacks through five games, which is two away from league leaders J.J. Watt and Danielle Hunter. He's also tied with Jimmy Wilkerson for the team lead through the first five games of the season since 2004 (Simeon Rice had eight through five games in 2003).
"Jason's a pro's pro," defensive line coach Brentson Buckner said. "[He] comes to work and works hard. One thing I can't coach and I don't think anybody can coach -- when he steps onto the field, he doesn't think anybody can block him. That's an attitude that the great ones have. He's brought that attitude every day."
"Nobody can block me, unless I block myself," Pierre-Paul said. "That's how I see it. Two, three men. Bring them on. I'm going to try and get past them."
It's an attitude the Bucs need. The defense ranked last in the league in sacks in 2017 with 22. That brought sweeping changes to their defensive line with three new starters, including Pierre-Paul.
In the Bucs' 34-29 loss to the Atlanta Falcons on Sunday, moments after quarterback Jameis Winston was intercepted in the third quarter, Pierre-Paul sacked Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan on third-and-17 for an 8-yard loss. In the Bucs' 48-10 loss to the Chicago Bears, when nothing went right, Pierre-Paul produced a sack, two tackles for a loss and seven combined tackles.
What stood out most in Chicago was what Pierre-Paul did on the sideline. He rounded up teammates in between defensive series and chided them about an unacceptable first-half performance. Not a talker by nature, let alone someone who yells, Pierre-Paul said it was something he had to do, even with players such as Gerald McCoy, Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David, who have been in the locker room a lot longer.
"Anytime you're playing football, just the passion for the game, you get frustrated at times," Pierre-Paul said. "I got maybe a little frustrated. Sometimes guys need it."
He was even critical of teammates on the Bucs' weekly player radio show Monday, when a fan called and asked about McCoy and Alexander dancing on the sidelines against the Falcons. The Bucs had just forced a three-and-out, but they were still losing on the road to a divisional opponent.
"I'm sorry you saw that on the sideline. Everybody individually, you have to check yourself," said Pierre-Paul, who said he didn't see it happening on the field, and didn't talk to them about it, but believes they need a change in attitude collectively. "I love the celebrations that come in with the sacks and the run stops, but until we can play as a unit and everybody is celebrating...[we shouldn't]."
Coach Dirk Koetter said he wasn't sure what he was getting from the 2010 first-round draft pick after he missed all of the Bucs' organized team activities this preseason. The coach and two-time Pro Bowler stayed in contact, but Koetter had reservations.
Fans had their reservations too, considering the Bucs' poor track record with free agents not named Simeon Rice, and high draft picks at that position -- Michael Johnson was gone after one year, George Johnson was ineffective as a starter, and Gaines Adams and Da'Quan Bowers didn't come close to living up to expectations. And then there was Michael Bennett, whom the Bucs let walk despite a nine-sack season in 2012.
Pierre-Paul told Koetter, "I'll be ready and you'll like it."
"A guy that backs up what he says, I have a lot of respect for that," Koetter said. "He has played very consistently, not only in practice but in games. As I’ve said before, I’ve been impressed with him as a vocal leader and a leader that sets the example by how he works. [I] can’t say enough good things."