TAMPA — The Bucs have invested money and recent draft picks in their defensive line, some claim Tampa Bay will go only as far as Josh Freeman takes it, and the team is stocked with young playmakers such as Mike Williams and Mason Foster.
But the team's fate in 2011 is tied largely to the five big guys up front.
The offensive line, the team's most experienced and highest-paid unit, will be charged with dominating defensive lines, beginning with the Lions on Sunday. That's the expectation, given how much faith has been placed in the linemen.
"We have a lot of experience, but it's about pay grade, too," center Jeff Faine conceded. "We've spent a lot of money up front. It's something we're looking for, to earn that respect."
Said right tackle Jeremy Trueblood: "There's a responsibility, but we're all prideful anyway, so we take a lot of pride in what we do. How well we do is reflected in how well this offense plays."
While the rest of the team essentially has been reconstructed the past two seasons, the offensive line remains largely intact. The team returns its starting five from 2010, with key backups Jeremy Zuttah and James Lee — both of whom have made multiple starts — also back.
"Continuity is so important on the offensive line," general manager Mark Dominik said. " … That's why, for me, the ability to have these guys work together has been so important."
Something that's also important to Dominik is getting elite play from his line. And the third-year GM is all in.
In the past two offseasons, Dominik has agreed to long-term deals with tackle Donald Penn, guard Davin Joseph and Trueblood worth roughly $80 million. Faine, signed as a free agent in 2008 by former GM Bruce Allen, was given a $36 million deal, making him the league's highest-paid center at the time.
Ted Larsen, plucked off waivers from the Patriots a year ago, is the only lineman who wasn't either an early round draft pick or re-signed to a considerable contract.
While so many other key pieces to the team are relatively new — Freeman, Williams, LeGarrette Blount and Gerald McCoy each have three years of experience or fewer on the league's youngest team — the offensive linemen have become fixtures. Joseph and Trueblood were drafted in 2006 in the first and second rounds, respectively, and are on their second contracts. Penn was signed off the Vikings' practice squad in 2006, and Faine is a nine-year veteran and one of the team captains.
They are, by far, the most senior group of players on the team.
"We've been through some changes: coaches, coordinators, we've seen some stiff competition, won, lost," Joseph said. "So, now, I think we're getting to a place where we're settled. We're comfortable with the (lineup) from left tackle to right tackle. It just feels like we just have a great mix of guys, all with a fair amount of experience. Plus, we have a great quarterback, wonderful running backs, explosive receivers. It seems like with all the talent we have, we need to be able to use our experience to help that talent out."
They'll get a good test right out of the gate, with the Lions and star defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh. It's a chance to solidify a notion held by each member of this line: That this is a formidable group.
"I think it's going to be a great defensive line going against a great offensive line," Penn said. "They think their defensive line is a power of their team. I think our offensive line is a power of our football team.
"They play hard, and they're good. But I'm not about to sit here and just throw all that credit to them. They're a great group, but I feel we're a great group, too."
There have been ups and downs. And there have been injuries, preventing the line from playing together for long stretches.
There are probably some doubts outside the locker room, but they don't exist within.
"I have a lot of confidence in this group," Joseph said. "There's nobody else I'd want to fight with except these guys."