Try as they might to block it out, the Bucs' offensive linemen know there's trouble at the front. Remember September, when Tampa Bay raced to a 3-1 record behind crisp run-blocking, triple-digit rushing totals and a well-protected Vinny Testaverde?
Ah, but October turned sober. With sacks and interceptions up, and the ground game grinding to a halt, the ghosts of Buc seasons past have begun to appear.
The blame for Tampa Bay's skid (three losses in four weeks) has been deservedly well-spread. But the fact remains, the Bucs' offensive line is drawing attention to itself, and for all the wrong reasons.
"You've got to be disappointed when you're not playing as well as you think you can," said Ian Beckles, the starting right guard. "But I think we're all tough individuals and we can bounce back."
Tampa Bay's situation requires a little resiliency about now. In San Diego on Sunday, the Bucs were manhandled by the Chargers 41-10. As a unit, nobody had a longer day than the Bucs' offensive front five.
With the San Diego defensive line putting on a fierce pass rush, Bucs quarterback Chris Chandler was sacked four times. When he wasn't sacked, he was harassed (seven pressures) and hurried (four interceptions).
Behind early, the Bucs' ground game went nowhere, producing a season-low 38 yards on 18 attempts. Tampa Bay's main man, running back Gary Anderson, entered the game as the NFL leader in total yards from scrimmage. He exited with just 26 yards on 10 carries, plus a healthy dose of respect for the Chargers' pursuit. "They had people chasing my tail off," Anderson said.
Displaying the togetherness that they covet in both good times and bad, the Bucs' offensive linemen are refusing to say much to outsiders about their recent struggles. Unfortunately, three of the most relevant offensive statistics _ sacks, interceptions, and rushing yardage _ are doing some of the talking for them.
In September's four games, the Bucs allowed just five sacks and tossed two interceptions. In October, Tampa Bay surrendered 18 sacks and threw seven interceptions (all in the past two games). As for rushing yardage, the Bucs gained 537 yards on 138 carries (3.9 per attempt, 134.3 per game) in September, but just 335 yards on 95 rushes (3.5, 83.8) in October. Tampa Bay's 3-1 start and 1-3 slide mirror the trend.
"Sure it's frustrating," center Randy Grimes said. "We gave up (four) sacks (Sunday), and as we looked at it on film, the offensive line was only responsible for two of them. So I think that's pretty good. Basically we played pretty well overall, with a few breakdowns here and there. But we'll get better. We'll continue to get better with these guys. I look for good things to keep happening."
Injuries have played a part in the line's decline. Starting left guard Tom McHale went down because of a knee injury in the third week against Detroit, and his replacement, Plan B signee Scott Dill, hurt his back the night before the Week 6 game against Green Bay. McHale is probably two weeks away from returning and Dill's status is uncertain.
Into the void has stepped second-year man Carl Bax, the former eighth-round draft pick who started four games in 1989. Bax, suspended by the National Football League for the season's first three weeks, played well in the win over Green Bay. But against Dallas and San Diego, teams that favor a four-man defensive front, the Bucs have had their troubles protecting the left side _ or blind side _ of the line.
Up next? Chicago, and its sack-happy four-man line.
"Yeah, we had a few problems there (Sunday)," Bucs coach Ray Perkins said. "But I hate to say (the injuries caused the problem). I think we lost McHale and then his backup, and both those guys were playing pretty well. But we'll find out if we have the depth to survive that. I think we do. It's just a matter of getting it done.
"We might have to do a couple things to help them out inside a little bit. You have to consider this: Green Bay is a (three-man) front. The two teams we played last are four-man lines, so they cover the guards, which makes a difference. A big difference."
Blitzes have been a major part of Tampa Bay's skyrocketing sack total, a sure sign that linemen aren't the only folks missing blocks.
"Linemen aren't the only people who have to pick up people," Bax said. "Backs have to pick up people. Tight ends have to pick up people. You've got to look at the whole picture, and if you understand that, then you know what's going on. It's nothing in particular. We've just got to get everybody working on the same page, working together."
Notes: The Bucs added wide receiver Chris Ford and defensive back Daryl Reed to their practice squad. Ford was on the active roster for a week and dressed for the Oct. 21 Cowboys game. Reed, 6 feet 1 and 185 pounds, is from the University of Oregon and was the 11th-round draft pick of the Seattle Seahawks this year.