TAMPA — If the Bucs' performance on offense in Saturday's 20-14 preseason loss to the Dolphins didn't completely turn coach Lovie Smith's frown upside down, at least it erased it.
"Last week I had a frown on my face when I was talking," Smith said Sunday. "I'm not frowning right now.
"We made progress from last week and that's what we wanted to see. We wanted to see progress in all areas. Everybody wants to talk about the offensive line. We're concerned about it and other positions, too. The offensive line got better (Saturday) night."
Specifically, the new guard tandem of Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh held up well enough for 22 plays Saturday to let quarterback Josh McCown complete 5-of-7 passes for 46 yards and a touchdown to Vincent Jackson. The line also blocked well enough for running back Doug Martin to rush six times for 24 yards.
"I thought the group held their own and we saw improvement," Smith said. "But as I said all along, our plan is to let everybody have an opportunity one way or another as we go through.
"When you get to the third preseason game, you're getting ready for the season and the group we put out there right now, they earned that right to get the majority of the plays this week. It will all be fairly clear on what we're thinking this week."
Having not addressed players who were off Sunday, Smith stopped just short of saying the Bucs plan to stick with Cousins at left guard and Omameh at right guard. But Saturday's game at Buffalo will essentially be the final dress rehearsal for the No. 1 offense, with starters expected to play into the third quarter. Few, if any, starters are expected to play in the preseason finale against the Redskins on Aug. 28 at Raymond James Stadium.
"We had some guys who played better than others," Smith said of the line. "Anthony Collins played well. Evan Dietrich-Smith. Demar (Dotson) didn't play as well as he played last week. Patrick Omameh did a good job for his first time out."
In fact, Smith felt good enough about his starting guards that he offered no evidence for changing that combination this week. On Omameh, an undrafted free agent from Michigan signed off the 49ers practice squad on Oct. 11, Smith said, "I think he held up. And when I say played well, I'm talking about all the things we ask him to do. Inside, you've got to be able to one-on-one block versus the run, versus the pass. Our quarterbacks, we held a couple balls, but for the most part protection gave them time to hit the receivers. Patrick was a part of that.
"Last week, the guards were at the top of our minds because of that constant, quick pressure inside. And he didn't really allow that. That's his first time out. We'll just kind of continue."
Cousins, entering his seventh pro season with five career starts, would seem to have the position locked up. "For Oniel to be in there two weeks, that's telling you I think we know what he is for the most part," Smith said. "Played solid ball."
But with the Sept. 7 regular-season opener against the Panthers looming, the Bucs' starters will have one more chance to make Smith smile.
"You go to 32 different teams, we're not there yet," Smith said. "It's just about improvement. This offense was better this week than last. And I expect to see more improvements this week."