Saturday, July 21, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Injuries test depth of Bucs offensive line

TAMPA — Ali Marpet goose stepped his way to the practice field Wednesday, the result of a clunky walking boot on his sprained right ankle.

J.R. Sweezy, recovering from surgery on his herniated disc, isn't in the doghouse but almost certainly headed to the physically unable to perform list, seemingly destined to miss the first five games of the regular season.

Evan Smith interrupted his battle with Joe Hawley at center to fill in for Marpet at right guard.

Kevin Pamphile, the Swiss Army knife of the group, continued to plug the hole at left guard left by the retirement of Logan Mankins. Last week, Pamphile played left tackle when Donovan Smith missed a few days with the flu.

For an offensive line that is considered the strength of the team, the Bucs blockers have spent much more time this preseason dealing with disappointment than celebrating success.

After the preseason opener at Philadelphia, Marpet gave an honor scout assessment.

"I think we can play so much better," Marpet said. "I don't know why we didn't perform how we could, but we just didn't. We didn't have that energy, we didn't have those details, we didn't have all that; it didn't click for us."

It didn't click in the first practice at Jacksonville or the first quarter against the Jaguars. It didn't click on Tuesday during a joint practice with the Browns, when coach Dirk Koetter said, "No juice. No juice. No one wanted to practice.''

He walked it back Wednesday after watching the film, saying he overreacted.

If nothing else, Koetter should feel fortunate the Bucs have as much depth in front of quarterback Jameis Winston as almost any team. Koetter declined comment on the severity of the injury to Marpet, who last season joined Smith as an All Rookie performer. They helped create holes for running back Doug Martin, the league's second-leading rusher with 1,402 yards and six touchdowns.

"Just the game has slowed down," Marpet said. "When you have more anticipation you can play faster and because of that I'm able to play faster."

When starting right tackle Demar Dotson suffered torn ligaments in his knee in Week 2 of the preseason last year, the Bucs were fortunate to sign veteran free agent Gosder Cherilus. When Evan Smith rolled his ankle the second week of the regular season at New Orleans, Hawley was in the fold as a free agent from the Falcons.

"Depth at any position is huge," Marpet said. "But to have that and have experience throughout the offensive line, it's invaluable."

That depth is being tested at a time when the Bucs would prefer continuity. For all the good things the Bucs behemoths did a year ago, protecting the quarterback wasn't one of them.

Winston was sacked 27 times, which tied for 19th in the NFL. But he absorbed 109 hits, fourth-most in the league. And that was better from 124 in 2014.

"It just starts with the offensive line," Winston said, praising the hard work that offensive line coach George Warhop puts the linemen through. "You've got to give all the credit to those guys."

There were positive signs last week at Jacksonville. After being held to 31 yards rushing at Philadelphia, the Bucs had 158 yards on the ground. "The run game is huge," Hawley said. "When you get 150 yards in the NFL, that's big. I think all three groups were doing a really good job running the ball. We need to continue to improve on it.

"Third week is the dress rehearsal, it's the final big push before the regular season, so we've got to come in and prepare like it's a regular season game, install like it's a regular-season game. I think the O-line, we're getting better every day and (in) football you're either coming in getting better or getting worse each day. We're just going to continue to try and get better each day and work well together."

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