Thursday, May 24, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offensive line deserves credit for Bucs' rushing success

TAMPA — It doesn't seem to matter which running back the Bucs plug in their lineup lately — stars or schlubs — the player plows through doubters, not to mention oncoming defenders, with equal success.

From Doug Martin to Mike James to Brian Leonard to Bobby Rainey, the baton is passed without the rushing game breaking stride.

Two weeks ago, with Martin ticketed for injured reserve with a torn labrum in his left shoulder, James ran wild for 158 yards against the Seahawks. He had 41 more on the opening drive Monday night against the Dolphins before breaking his left ankle.

No problem. Leonard and Rainey, claimed off waivers from the Browns on Oct. 21, helped the Bucs backfield combine for 140 yards and a touchdown.

"Basically, I came into the NFL with a chip on my shoulder because I didn't get drafted (in 2012 out of Western Kentucky)," Rainey said. "I feel like I have something to prove, not to everybody else but to myself."

What Rainey and the others might have proved is the Bucs offensive line can make heroes out of zeroes. Not to diminish the talent of the tailbacks — Martin led all rookies with 1,454 yards and 11 touchdowns while being named to the Pro Bowl in 2012 — but the holes are there to bolt through.

"I think opportunity is the key," coach Greg Schiano said. "(Right guard Davin Joseph) is getting more healthy. He's getting a better feel. But I think you've got to give them shots, and I think that's what's paying off."

The Bucs have used five offensive line combinations over nine games. But it wasn't until Jamon Meredith took over at left guard, against the Seahawks, that the running game really took off.

Joseph, who missed last season with a torn patellar tendon, is starting to get his sea legs under him and playing much better. Jeremy Zuttah is back at center, a position he's most suited for. And tackles Donald Penn and Demar Dotson have been solid.

"All the credit goes to the offensive line," Rainey said. "They're the ones that open up the holes for us to be able to read and get yardage. The offensive line did a great job (Monday) and the week before. It's a matter of picking the hole and hitting it."

The Bucs are 14th in the league in rushing at 111.1 yards per game.

After its performance against Miami, the offensive line was awarded game balls.

"I think our offensive line is going to be the key, our receivers, everybody blocking," Schiano said. "I do think the guys who are going to be touching the ball as running backs, they have good feel. Sometimes, when a guy gets an opportunity, he shows what he can do. I think Bobby did that the other night. I think Brian has been doing that."

Penn and Joseph have played every snap. Right tackle Demar Dotson and Zuttah, while also seeing time at left guard, have missed only a few.

"I think there are a few factors," offensive coordinator Mike Sullivan said. "Any time you have the same five guys lining up and making the same communication, pre-snap calls throughout the week, that continuity and their preparation certainly play a key factor."

It's not a coincidence that Meredith, a tackle by nature, has had an impact. Last season he was pressed into service at guard and now has been part of the three biggest rushing days over the past two seasons, including Martin's 251-yard, four-touchdown performance at Oakland a year ago.

"I think Jamon has done a good job since he's been in the lineup," Schiano said. "I think opportunity (to run the football) is the key. It's the same guys. Now Davin is getting healthy. He's getting a better feel. But I think you've got to give them shots (to run), and I think that's what's paying off."

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