TAMPA — The Bucs' strength is their offensive line. Sounds funny, but it's true.
It's a little like saying the Bears are the cradle of quarterbacks (after trading for Jay Cutler, maybe they're onto something). But considering how much the Bucs have invested in their blockers — a first-round pick for guard Davin Joseph, second-rounders for tackle Jeremy Trueblood and guard Arron Sears, and $37.5 million for center Jeff Faine — somebody figured it's about time they play to their strength.
That's what new offensive coordinator Jeff Jagodzinski plans to do this season.
He wants the Bucs running game to become the identity of their offense, and he might make stars out of linemen who normally toil in obscurity.
Jagodzinski is installing a zone blocking scheme, using the versatility and athleticism of the team's offensive line.
"It's a perfect fit," Faine said. "When they were putting this offensive line together, it's almost like that's what they were putting it together for. I think it'll be something that maximizes our abilities and maximizes what we bring to the table all the way across the board. There's not an unathletic guy on the offensive line. It should be something that uses our attributes to help us."
In general, zone blocking allows the offense to outnumber the defense at the point of attack. If a defensive player lines up directly over an offensive lineman, that's his primary blocking responsibility. If an offensive lineman isn't covered by a defender, he double-teams the first defender he encounters in the direction the play is headed.
During a double-team, one player has to peel off and try to block a second-level defender, most likely a linebacker. Often, players take a designated path and block anybody that gets in their way. "Think of a train heading down the track," Faine said.
The blocking, ideally, results in cutback lanes for running backs, who have to choose a hole quickly, plant their foot in the ground and get upfield or downhill, as coaches refer to it. For the past seven seasons, the Bucs offensive line has played more gap schemes that emphasize one-on-one blocks and pulling guards.
But every offense has stretch plays and zone running plays. Faine said those produced some of the longer runs from scrimmage last season.
"We had some zone runs. The difference between this year and last year is that we'll major in zone (blocking)," Faine said. "And we had some zone concepts. They were successful. A lot of those long Earnest Graham runs were zones that he made the read and cut back and took it for long yardage. We've been successful with the zone in the past. But now we'll fine-tune it and be successful all the time. There will be some of those runs where we'll get 3 or 4 yards and then bust out a couple long ones."
Jagodzinski helped install the zone blocking scheme with the Falcons as offensive line coach in 2004-05, a system Warrick Dunn thrived in by rushing for a career-high 1,416 yards in '05. Graham and recently acquired Giants free agent running back Derrick Ward appear perfectly suited for the downhill rushing attack.
"I think it has to start with the run game," Jagodzinski said. "If you can't run the ball in this league, I think you are going to have a hard time. Because off the run, if you get that established, everything else will fall into place for you."
It's the blueprint that coach Raheem Morris wanted to follow after watching teams such as the Steelers and Jaguars impose their will — with their power rushing attack — on defenses.
"When you talk about being physical and violent, you're talking about tackling and blocking," Morris said. "We have to be more physical blockers. We're talking about violent football. When you talk about violent and physical football teams, you're talking about the Pittsburgh Steelers, you think about downhill running and people smashing. You are talking about the Jacksonville Jaguars. You're talking about people smashing you and running downhill. We want to become those guys and become that violent. We want people to look at us in that same light."
Ward and second-year pro Clifton Smith worked on timing and identifying the cutback lanes during the Bucs' three-day minicamp, which concluded Thursday.
"I think with the guys we have up front, with the skill players we have, there's no telling what we could do running the ball," Ward said. "We will be explosive, we will run the ball, we will pass the ball down the field, and we're going to put up some big numbers. It's touchdowns all day, nothing but touchdowns."