TAMPA — Demar Dotson had missed a full three months of football with a knee injury, and when he returned to the Bucs, he initially played only special teams, working on extra points and field goals for 14 total plays in his first three games.
Then Sunday, he found himself back home as the starting right tackle, playing every snap in a 23-19 win over the Falcons. Understandably, the 30-year-old was feeling physically drained by the end of the game.
"I felt pretty good. I was a little tired, my back was locking up and the legs were getting fatigued on me," Dotson said. "I was pushing through it. That was my first game I'd played in a long time. There were little ups and downs, but that young kid Jameis (Winston), he was pushing me through it the whole time. I can't say enough about him."
With Dotson — the longest-tenured Buc, on the roster since 2009 — stepping in for Gosder Cherilus at right tackle and rookie Ali Marpet returning from a three-week injury at right guard, Tampa Bay was able to make key changes on its offensive line without skipping a beat. That line, pushing each other to finish the game strong, gave up only one sack of Winston, while helping a running game that piled up 166 yards.
"It's hard, coming back. It was hard for me. I couldn't imagine that," Marpet said of Dotson's long absence. "I think (Winston) and (center) Joe (Hawley) are the biggest motivators that get you through those long drives."
Dotson had a holding penalty during the winning drive late in the fourth quarter, but the offense overcame it, trusting in him to play at a high level in his first game back as a starter.
"Demar did a really nice job," offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said. "Going into the season, arguably we would have said Logan (Mankins) and Dot are our two best returning linemen, and here he is … making his first appearance in a long time. He's been foaming at the mouth to play, too."
Offensive line coach George Warhop was pleased with how well Dotson handled his recovery from injury and his patience in his return to the line.
"He's been working to that. He had an opportunity, he went out and performed," Warhop said. "It's fortunate we have the guys we've got, because they all have handled it extremely well. The room is as good a room as I've been involved with, period."
Warhop now has the luxury of depth. Evan Smith, who began the season as the starting center and filled in three games at right guard when Marpet was out, is now a backup. On Sunday, so was Cherilus, who had played every snap in the first 11 games after being signed following Dotson's injury.
The Bucs haven't had dropoffs when they've made changes on the line, such that Warhop has confidence in any combination he could use from his top eight linemen, including Kevin Pamphile, who has started one game and played extensively as a sixth lineman in the team's "heavy" package.
"With this group, I don't care who plays," Warhop said. "I really don't. We're very fortunate. That's not always the case at all. Right now, the decision is the guys that have been in there functioning the best. … I can't speak highly enough about Dot and Evan and how they handled the situation."
Dotson, who was negotiating a contract extension during the summer before a brief holdout and then his injury, hopes to use these final four regular-season games as a chance to re-establish himself as a reliable starter at right tackle, though he doesn't know for sure if he'll have that opportunity.
"I don't know what they're going to do," said Dotson, excited at the possibility of making the playoffs for the first time in his seven NFL seasons. "They could go back to what it was in the beginning. Whatever they do, I just accept it. If I'm starting, I'm starting. If not, I have to be the best backup I can be."
Contact Greg Auman at firstname.lastname@example.org.