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Bucs offensive line stays strong despite change

By the time the Bucs lost their second Pro Bowl guard to a season-ending injury two weeks ago, you must admit, it looked pretty grim.

Left tackle Donald Penn is the only starting offensive lineman playing the same spot as when training camp began. Jeremy Zuttah was forced to abandon his best position, center, and move to left guard.

On the scoreboard and in the standings, the Bucs looked like a team about to be buried. Rest in pieces.

But instead, Tampa Bay has thrived with an offensive line that has protected quarterback Josh Freeman and opened gaping holes for rookie running back Doug Martin.

The Bucs rank third in the league in sacks allowed with 13 while Martin, who rushed for a club-record 251 yards and four touchdowns in the first game without injured left guard Carl Nicks, is in consideration for offensive rookie of the year.

"It seems like we are rolling someone new in there every couple of weeks, which is unfortunate," coach Greg Schiano said. "I think it starts with (offensive line coach) Bob Bostad and (assistant) Steve Loney doing a great job coaching those guys. Then I think the players themselves … the vets that are left on the line with Jeremy Zuttah and Donald Penn really providing solid leadership and getting the guys together. They work hard.

"I won't get into who, but there are guys in here at 6 in the morning with their coaches just watching extra tape and trying to learn the position, the ins and outs of it. It is not like they lucked into their performance. They have earned it."

The shuffling by Bostad, a former Wisconsin offensive line coach, actually began at the end of the preseason, when Pro Bowl right guard Davin Joseph was lost for the season with a torn patellar tendon. Ted Larsen, who had started 14 games at guard over the previous two season, replaced Joseph before he was benched after a 1-3 start.

Enter Jamon Meredith, a 6-foot-5, 312-pound converted tackle who had spent time with the Packers, Bills, Lions, Giants and Steelers. Following the bye week, the Bucs benched Lar­sen for Meredith.

"Nobody's putting any added pressure on me. It's just 'next man up,' " said Meredith, who is questionable for today's game at Carolina with a sprained left ankle sustained during practice Wednesday. "You come in, you play, and the offense keeps rolling. We miss Davin, especially his presence around here."

Larsen returned to the lineup at center, the position he played at N.C. State, when the Bucs moved Zuttah to left guard.

Right tackle Demar Dotson, who took over for Jeremy Trueblood after an ankle injury in Week 1, did not even play football until his senior season at Southern Miss. But the 6-9, 315-pound converted basketball player has been solid in pass protection while giving the Bucs more athleticism and thump in the run game.

"Nobody is going to give us a chance," Dotson said. "You read stuff in the media about 'patched-up linemen' and all that crazy stuff. It makes you want to go out and show all the naysayers that say you can't do it."

Zuttah, who played every offensive line position for Schiano at Rutgers, has made it all work. Although physically more suited for center, he returned to guard once two-time Pro Bowler Nicks went down.

"I'm not going to sit here and tell you he was raring to do it, but he trusts us and figures, 'If that's the best thing to win,' " Schiano said.

"What he did was go out and play a good game against great competition (at Oakland) and then he played another good game against great competition (against San Diego). And I think he improved from Week 1 to Week 2."

Despite the line dance, Freeman hasn't blinked. His 98.2 passer rating is seventh in the league and his 8.3 yards per attempt first. Over his past five games, he has thrown 13 touchdowns and only one interception.

The low sacks are the result of a combination of factors: Freeman's growing familiarity with the offense, a sound scheme by offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan and Martin's ability to pick up blitzing linebackers

"We've given up a number of sacks that I can say are my fault," Freeman said. "It's getting the ball out; not necessarily waiting on a route, but getting the ball out, checking the ball down. There are a number of things you get better at through the year. And in practice, we drill a lot of stuff, a lot of blitz drills, a lot of work as far as moving forward and getting the ball out.

"It's been great because there have been times when we needed the O-line to protect for three or four seconds, and they've answered the bell. They've stepped up to the challenge and made it happen."

Bucs offensive line stays strong despite change 11/17/12 [Last modified: Saturday, November 17, 2012 7:30pm]

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