TAMPA, Fla. (AP) - Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy is healthy again, and Tampa Bay's pass rush suddenly is showing signs of dramatic improvement.
The third-year pro had one of three sacks of Cam Newton in a 16-10 season-opening victory over Carolina, while also helping the Buccaneers defense limit the Panthers to 10 yards rushing.
McCoy was the third overall pick in the 2010 draft, selected two spots behind Detroit's Ndamukong Suh. But while the Lions' young defensive tackle immediately established himself as a rising star, McCoy struggled to stay on the field the past two seasons because of injuries.
The Bucs were last in the NFL with 23 sacks in 2011, when McCoy missed two games because of an ankle injury and the final eight weeks of the season tearing his right biceps trying to make a tackle in a loss to New Orleans. He sat out the final three games of his rookie year with a torn left biceps.
Without him, Tampa Bay's went downhill in a hurry, finishing 30th in yards allowed and yielding a NFL-worst and franchise-record 494 points.
"Gerald is real instrumental," said first-year coach Greg Schiano, noting McCoy has a combination of strength and quickness that could help the former Oklahoma standout develop into a dominating player in the Bucs' new defensive scheme.
"He is a disruptive force," Schiano added. "Even when he doesn't make the play, he's got such get off and penetration ability that he makes plays bubble, he makes plays redirect."
That ability was evident Sunday, when McCoy led a relentless pass rush against Newton, who was pressured into a pair of interceptions and held to 4 yards rushing on 5 attempts.
McCoy finished with two tackles, both for losses, and was nearly had a second sack when he managed to get his arms around Newton but was unable to get him on the 245-pound quarterback on the ground before Newton released a pass for a short gain.
"Coach tells me all he wants me to do is my assignment. That's all I went out there and did. My job," McCoy said, playing down what arguably was the best performance of his career.
"One thing we're focusing on this year is us. We have to come in and grade ourselves critically about what we did wrong and what we can do better," he added. "I did some pretty good things ... but I also left some plays out there."
Nevertheless, McCoy left Raymond James Stadium feeling pretty good about his performance. That is, until he heard from former Bucs All-Pro Warren Sapp, now a television analyst. McCoy is the highest-drafted defensive tackle selected by the Bucs since Sapp was the 12th overall pick in 1995.
Sapp, part of Tampa Bay's Super Bowl champion defense of 10 years ago, has spent time with McCoy on and off the field to help the 24-year-old with his game.
"Sapp called me and said, 'Look, if you've ever got a quarterback in your grasp like that and you let him out, me and you are going to fight.' I said, 'I don't want none of that,'" McCoy said, laughing.
"I've got to make the plays that come to me. I made a good move on my man, got to the quarterback. You've got to make it," he added. "This is the NFL. Getting to the quarterback is not easy at all. And I've proven it two years. It's not easy, so when I get there, I've got to get him on the ground."
McCoy didn't have a sack until the 10th game of his rookie season. He had one sack in six games a year ago, so he's already matched that number in 2012.
Now he hopes to build on last week's success. His next test comes Sunday on the road against Eli Manning and the defending Super Bowl champion New York Giants.
"Preparation is key. We're going to have to prepare seriously for this team," McCoy said. "We've got to keep rolling. We can never be satisfied."