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Bucs’ Ryan Jensen and the line between necessary aggressiveness and unnecessary roughness

The Bucs center is the most penalized player in the league in terms of penalty yards and unnecessary roughness calls.
MONICA HERNDON | Times Tampa Bay Buccaneers center Ryan Jensen (66) leaves the field after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers game against the New Orleans Saints on December 9, 2018 at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, Fla. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers lost to the New Orleans Saints 28 to 14.
Published Dec. 15, 2018

TAMPA — Bucs center Ryan Jensen returns to Baltimore this weekend, the place where his rise from practice squad player to the league's highest paid center took root.

In some ways, playing his first five seasons with the Ravens was perfect for Jensen. A sixth-round pick from a Division-II school, Jensen worked his way up the depth chart with the determination the team's "Play Like a Raven" mantra implies.

"The word relentless is always a word that (Ravens coach) John (Harbaugh) used a lot," Jensen said. "Relentless is always something that comes to mind when you say 'Play like a Raven.' I think that shows with the way the defense flies around."

And relentless might be the best way to describe how Jensen has found success and they way he plays.

The 6-foot-4, 319-pound Jensen plays to the whistle and sometimes beyond. His aggressiveness has made him not only the league's most penalized center this season, but one of the NFL's most flagged players.

"Do we want to get penalties? No. Do we want him to totally change his style of play? No," said Bucs coach Dirk Koetter.

Jensen has been flagged for four unnecessary roughness penalties — most of any NFL player — including one in last Sunday's Bucs' 28-14 loss to the Saints that stalled a late-second quarter drive and prompted a verbal, finger-pointing sideline confrontation between Jensen and quarterback Jameis Winston.

"I think it's pretty hard to get away from the game I play but you've also got to feel the ebbs and flows of a game and when not to do that kind of stuff," Jensen said. "It's just the way I'm wired on the field, just consistently finishing through the whistle and stuff like that. I can't get away from that because that's what makes me the player that I am."

Jensen was also penalized for holding earlier in that series, part of a momentum-killing eight-play sequence that included five Tampa Bay penalties.

The unnecessary roughness call last week was the least egregious of his four. Jensen was blocking on a screen pass to Bobo Wilson, and charged through Saints linebacker Alex Anzalone.  His legs tangled with Anzalone's while falling forward after Wilson was down.

Said Koetter, "It wasn't a cheap shot by any means."

The Bucs like having Jensen downfield leading blocks because one of his biggest strengths is holding his blocks in open area, but it's also there were he often gets flagged for continuing the play beyond the whistle.

"He is consistently down there," offensive coordinator Todd Monken said. "He's consistently around the ball. He's recovered fumbles for us being down there. He's gotten guys off the piles and gotten us more yards."

Still, it is those 15-yarders that have made Jensen the most penalized offensive lineman in terms of yards (100).

Even Monken wonders where to draw the line between aggressive and costly.

"There is a huge positive to how hard he plays and how much he enjoys playing the game of football," Monken said.

Only five players have been flagged more than the nine penalties Jensen has received. That's not necessarily the production the Bucs had in mind when they made him the NFL's highest paid center with a four-year, $42-million contract that includes $22 million guaranteed.

"There's a little bit of variance in what some (officiating) crews let off and stuff like that," Jensen said. "But I've got to be smarter in feeling that out right away."

Last season in Baltimore, Jensen was penalized just four times last season, and he was called for unnecessary roughness just once.

"I look back on stuff last year that I was doing the same way that wasn't getting called," Jensen said. "I don't know if it's like that because I've put that on tape now and they're paying attention to it more or what not. But that's something you've always got to assess."

Before arriving in Tampa Bay, Jensen was best known for a punishing hit that didn't draw a penalty. He played the role of enforcer last October after Dolphins linebacker Kiko Alonso made an illegal hit to the head of Ravens quarterback Joe Flacco. Jensen immediately leveled Alonso in defense of his teammate.

That side of Jensen was evident early on this season.

"One thing I'll say about him is that he cares about his teammates," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who went up against Jensen during training camp in first-team drills. "If something happens, he's the first one over there. It's just who he is.

"I think he brings something that every line needs on offense or defense," McCoy added. "He brings something that every team needs. Every team needs one of those gritty guys. One of the guys who is willing to do the dirty work and not afraid to toe that line. That's just what Jensen is. We accept him for who he is, because it's necessary when you're playing this game. You need guys like that. … I'm glad he's on our side."

Contact Eduardo A. Encina at eencina@tampabay.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.

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