TAMPA — The offensive line was supposed to be the strength of the Bucs, particularly at guard, where Carl Nicks (6 feet 5, 349 pounds) and Davin Joseph (6-3, 313) were counted on to clear holes for running back Doug Martin.
But Wednesday, the Bucs prepared to play their sixth game with their fourth combination of starters.
How can this collection of the team's most prodigious bellies stomach what has happened this season?
Nicks, who played only nine games in 2012 because of a left toe injury, was in Charlotte, N.C., recovering from Tuesday night's surgery to rid a MRSA staph infection from his left foot.
Coach Greg Schiano said Nicks sought an outside opinion on the best way to deal with the infection. So he was operated on by foot and ankle specialist Robert Anderson. He won't play Sunday at Atlanta, but it's too soon to know if he'll return this season.
"It's tough. My heart is out to him," Bucs left tackle Donald Penn said. "He's going to bounce back. I feel bad for him. It's part of the game. He knows that."
Meanwhile, Joseph, who missed all of last season with a torn patellar tendon in his left knee, has struggled regaining his Pro Bowl level of consistency. And Wednesday, he missed practice due to a right knee injury sustained during Sunday's 31-20 loss to the Eagles.
Schiano said he hopes Joseph will practice today. But contingency plans are being made.
Tuesday, the Bucs moved backup guard Ted Larsen to center and starting center Jeremy Zuttah to left guard. Wednesday, Gabe Carimi, who started two games at left guard while Nicks recovered from his first bout with MRSA, lined up at right guard.
"It's life in the NFL," Schiano said. "We've got to get the best five out there, though, and get the quarterback protected and get the run game blocked up. There hasn't been a lot of continuity there. But every team is going through their issues whether it's on the line, receiver, running back, defense. You've got to find a way to get it done."
When Nicks left the Saints for a five-year, $47.5 million contract in 2012, the Bucs salivated over pairing him with Joseph to give them, arguably, the best tandem of guards in the NFL.
But they have played only two of a possible 21 games together.
Even so, Martin led all rookies last season with 1,454 rushing yards (4.6 per carry) and 11 touchdowns. But this season, Martin is averaging only 3.5 yards with one touchdown.
"I don't think we ever really got to see that group," Schiano said. "But that's life. So whoever is up, we've got to go play and we've got to block them and protect the quarterback."
Schiano acknowledges the line, which also includes Penn and Demar Dotson, has not been consistent. Tampa Bay ranks 20th in the league at 99.2 rushing yards per game.
"At times, they've been effective and at other times not," Schiano said. "So I guess the word is inconsistent. Probably one of the biggest keys to offensive line play is consistency. It's one of those deals when you don't notice it. That's kind of the life of an offensive lineman."
Already, Martin has taken a pretty good beating. He is on pace for 406 touches this season, a heavy workload for the 5-foot-9 running back. Last season, he had 368 touches.
"We've had a lot of 1-yard runs on early downs, and we've got to do a better job," Penn said. "We can't be second and 9.
"It's our fault. We've got to make it right from the beginning."
At 0-5, the line dance will continue. But any way they shuffle the deck, the Bucs' blockers have to get better.
"We've got to try to turn these things around," Penn said. "We can't sit here and feel sorry for ourselves because nobody is going to feel sorry for us. So it's the next man up, and we've got to get it rolling."
Rick Stroud can be reached at [email protected]