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Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line must meet expectations

Bucs offensive line coach Pat Morris talks with his players, including Jeff Faine and Jeremy Zuttah, during Thursday’s practice at the Trop.

WILLIE J. ALLEN JR. | Times

Bucs offensive line coach Pat Morris talks with his players, including Jeff Faine and Jeremy Zuttah, during Thursday’s practice at the Trop.

TAMPA — It is too soon to expect much from the defensive line. Even Warren Sapp took a little time before becoming the most dominant interior lineman in the league.

And it is asking too much for the receivers to strike fear in the hearts of defensive coordinators on Sundays. Arrelious Benn is months removed from major knee surgery, and there is little experienced depth behind him.

And no matter how low you believe Barrett Ruud set the bar, it is still wishful thinking to expect a rookie to play middle linebacker without some growing pains along the way.

On the other hand, there is Tampa Bay's offensive line.

And there is no excuse for those guys.

Nowhere have the Bucs invested more money and effort than on the offensive line. They've spent millions. They've used draft picks, and they've expended faith.

They have four linemen (Jeff Faine, Davin Joseph, Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood) who have started at least 60 games. Three (Faine, Joseph and Penn) have multiyear deals for a combined $138 million, including more than $50 million guaranteed.

Two were high draft picks (Joseph and Trueblood), and Faine was the most expensive free agent center ever when he signed in 2008. The oldest of the bunch (Faine) just turned 30, and all five (including Ted Larsen) have been in the same huddle for the past year.

In other words, this unit should absolutely be considered one of the best lines in the NFL.

But is it?

"Mark Dominik and Raheem Morris and the organization have, obviously, made a commitment to the offensive line," Faine said. "We should be, if we're not already, at that point you would define as peak performance."

The Bucs offense might have been efficient last season, but it was nowhere close to dynamic. And when it came time to hand out credit for its accomplishments, most was heaped on Josh Freeman and others.

Now it's not unusual for offensive linemen to get overlooked when it comes to accolades. Their job is not glamorous, and it is not tied to easily recognizable statistics.

And to be fair, the offensive line appeared to be pretty good last season. Probably in the upper half of the NFL.

Still, considering the franchise's commitment, this line needs to be better than it was in 2010. And it needs to be a lot better than it was in the season opener.

"The biggest frustration is we came out with an L. It doesn't matter who you are — you can start with a whole new team — you still have to perform and execute. We didn't do that," said Penn. "If we had won, it would have been a totally different story. But we lost, and we're down."

Is it the line's fault that the Bucs were slow starters on offense last season? At least partially, sure. And the line certainly shared in the blame of Sunday's slow start.

The first two runs of the game went for zero yards. And on two of the first five passing plays, Freeman was either sacked or had to scramble for a 1-yard gain.

That's a pretty good formula for starting a game with successive three-and-outs.

Still, it is hard to quantify how good an offensive line plays without having access to assignments and videotape.

For instance, the Bucs had an effective running game once LeGarrette Blount started getting the ball regularly last season. But does that mean the line was playing well and just needed an above-average back to produce? Or was Blount so good that he made an average line look even better?

The same could be true for Freeman. He rushed for more yards than any quarterback not named Michael Vick last season, which is a tribute to his athleticism and skill. But it could also be an indictment of a line that forced him to scramble too much.

The website profootballfocus.com studied how many times a quarterback was pressured in 2010, and it determined Tampa Bay's line was 31st in the league in keeping pressure off Freeman. According to the study, Freeman felt pressure on 47.3 percent of attempts. The league median was about 36 percent.

Again, this is not an exact science. The fault could be on receivers who were not open. Or Freeman failing to read the defense. Or the defense being able to focus on pass rushing because of the score.

"It's a collective effort. It's a team effort," Faine said. "The running backs have to be on the page. The receivers have to be on the page. The quarterback, obviously, has to be on the page. Sacks are a team stat more than an offensive line stat, but it falls on our shoulders. I think we're in the upper third (of the league in offensive lines)."

There is no single statistic that will verify a line's performance. It is a subjective grade and, obviously, open to one's interpretation.

From here, the Bucs offensive line looks pretty good.

But there is no reason it shouldn't be better.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line must meet expectations 09/15/11 [Last modified: Thursday, September 15, 2011 9:59pm]
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