Offensive line is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' biggest disappointment

Jeff Faine was supposed to complete the picture when the Bucs gave him the richest contract ever for a center.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Jeff Faine was supposed to complete the picture when the Bucs gave him the richest contract ever for a center.

TAMPA — You could blame the defensive line.

After all, it's a big, easy target full of castoffs, experiments and temps. But, honestly, who among us expected much out of Tampa Bay's defensive line in the first place?

You could blame the quarterbacks.

There have certainly been enough of them. If you count Luke McCown, who began training camp at the top of the depth chart, the Bucs went through four quarterbacks in a little more than three months. But at least you knew the other guys were just keeping the job warm until Josh Freeman could make himself at home.

When it comes to Tampa Bay's 1-10 start, you could blame the linebackers, the defensive backs, the coaches, the owners and the folks in charge of inflating the footballs.

Yet, in this season of disappointment, I'd say the offensive line is responsible for the greatest letdown of all.

You remember this offensive line, right? The one with all the high draft picks and the lavishly paid free agent? The one that was supposed to be the greatest unit in franchise history? The line that was supposed to be a worry-free zone at Raymond James?

Eleven games into the season, none of that has come to pass. It'd be an exaggeration to say the offensive line has been the Bucs' biggest problem, but it's more than fair to say it has not come close to living up to expectations.

No matter how you measure it, Tampa Bay's offense has been dreadful this season. The Bucs are not running the ball well — they're 23rd in the NFL. And they aren't passing the ball effectively — they're 25th in the NFL. So I suppose it makes sense that they're also not scoring much — they're 28th in the NFL.

Naturally, the receivers, backs and quarterback share in that misery, but it was the line that was supposed to elevate Tampa Bay to respectability on the offensive side of the ball.

"The consistency isn't there for us up front," guard Davin Joseph said. "We have had breakdowns that we shouldn't. It can be frustrating, but you have to fight through the tough times and keep on digging."

After years of ridicule and patchwork construction, the Bucs finally got serious about the offensive line a few years ago. They had five picks in the first two rounds of the 2006-07 drafts and used three of those on offensive linemen. Then, in 2008, they used a third-round pick on another lineman and signed Jeff Faine to the richest contract ever for an NFL center.

The result was supposed to be a wall of confidence and intimidation. The reality has been a lot less than anticipated.

"It's not been good enough," offensive line coach Pete Mangurian said. "I don't care what the expectations were, what happened here last year, what we might have done in any one game, the bottom line is we haven't been consistently good."

Go back to the offseason when coach Raheem Morris was hired, and you will recall his one mandate on offense was a running game. He did not offer many details about his philosophies, but he insisted the Bucs would be better at running the ball.

Yet the ground game has gone backward from 2008 to '09. The running backs are getting fewer carries (24.7 to 20.2) than last season and are gaining fewer yards per game (114.8 to 98.2).

Now, granted, there are reasons for the inconsistencies. Plausible, legitimate reasons.

For instance, the Bucs have fallen behind quickly in some games and have been forced to abandon the run too soon. There is also the absence of Arron Sears at left guard. And what may have been an ill-advised attempt to become a zone blocking team under since-dismissed offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski.

The personnel on the offensive line may not have been suited for the switch, and so now the Bucs are using a combination of their old power-blocking schemes as well as zone blocking.

Faine says the running game has gotten more consistent in recent weeks, and it has coincided with Freeman's arrival in the huddle. Because Freeman offers the threat of a downfield passing attack, defenses are going to be less likely to keep a safety near the line of scrimmage to slow the running game.

"I think the perfect example of what we need is what New Orleans has done," Faine said. "They've become a really good running team, and it's because they've been able to open things up with the passing game. You can't play with eight in the box against the New Orleans Saints. You just can't do that. So that makes the running game so much easier.

"And as we improve our consistency in the passing game, the running game will follow. We will be able to create that identity of a hard, power running team, ironically, once the passing game gets going."

For now, either would be welcome. A passing game with some big-play ability, or a running game with some consistency. The Bucs have made some investments in the talent, and the dividends are overdue.

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Offensive line is the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' biggest disappointment 12/02/09 [Last modified: Thursday, December 3, 2009 8:43am]

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