TAMPA — It was one of their worst games of the season, but Dirk Koetter played a little defense for the Bucs offensive linemen.
They allowed Jameis Winston to be sacked four times last Sunday, hit on 10 other occasions and be forced to flee the pocket five times.
Donovan Smith has given up a career-high 5.5 sacks this season, according to Stats, Inc. Center Ryan Jensen ran his penalty total to nine for 100 yards with his fourth unsportsmanlike conduct infraction. Right guard Caleb Benenoch has, at times, been like a saloon door in pass protection. That's prompted the Bucs to alternate him with Evan Smith, and after he went on injured reserve, rookie Alex Cappa.
Right tackle Demar Dotson, who had two knee surgeries in the off-season, hasn't been healthy all year. At times his play has reflected that.
And yet, Koetter became defensive when some criticism was heaped on the offensive line this week.
"Your players are your players, okay?'' Koetter said. "So whoever your players are, you're going to coach them, you're going to game plan, you're going to try to do the things we believe in and we're going to try to play to our strengths and hide our weaknesses. …
"There's plenty of criticism to go around, starting with the head coach and working all the way down," Koetter said. "But our offense is also top 10 in seven categories. So we're bitching about the o-linemen, I mean, they've contributed to the top 10 in those seven categories."
Koetter is right. You have to give the offensive line its share of the credit for the Bucs success piling up points and yards.
The Bucs are in the top 10 in total offense (430.1 yards per game), points per game (25.5) passing average (331.4), passing yards (4,308), yards per attempt (8.7), touchdown passes (31) and third down percentage (49).
But the Bucs also have allowed 94 quarterback hits, the fourth most in the NFL. Only San Francisco (100), Atlanta (97) and Houston (97) have allowed more.
"I can make those grades say whatever I want them to and you guys probably can, too,'' Koetter said.
Perhaps, but there needs to be improvement made on the offensive line.
Smith will be a free agent. Because he would be the No. 1 left tackle available, having not missed a game in four years, he would likely command about $12 million per year. The Bucs could make Smith their franchise player for a million north of that.
Left guard Ali Marpet has had the best season of any Bucs offensive linemen, proving worthy of the new five-year, $55.1 million contract he signed last offseason.
If Jensen can clean up the penalties, he's a more than adequate, albeit probably not worth being the NFL's highest-paid center at $5.5 million.
At some point, the Bucs have to find a solution at right guard and start the search for Dotson's replacement.
The constant is the Bucs can't run the football. Take away the 244 rushing yards by Winston and the 152 rushing yards by Ryan Fitzpatrick, and the Bucs have only 887 yards rushing, the fewest rushing first downs (44) and the league's worst rushing average (3.6).
It's getting harder to evaluate and develop offensive linemen from the college game. With so many spread options, there are very few techniques used in college football. Furthermore, the collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from putting their players in pads before training camp.
The Bucs also need to look at their coaching staff. Offensive line coach George Warhop has been with the Bucs for five seasons. You have to wonder if Koetter returns whether the Glazer family will want some staff changes.
The bottom line is that Koetter is right. There are very few teams with five Pro Bowl caliber offensive linemen. The Bucs players are their players. But they aren't good enough on the offensive line. Not yet.
Contact Rick Stroud at [email protected] Follow @NFLStroud