TAMPA — For all the bashing Jameis Winston has taken from his critics, he didn’t need what the Cleveland Browns did to him Friday.
The Bucs quarterback was beaten, bruised and battered by five sacks and hit on several other occasions in the first half during what was his longest and last appearance of the preseason.
Lookout blocks are not part of the new offense under Bruce Arians, who didn’t stutter when asked about the play of his starting offensive line.
“They got their (butt) kicked,'' Arians said. "One on one.''
All told, the Bucs allowed seven sacks and 12 quarterback hits but still managed to beat the Browns 13-12, thanks to an improved defense and another game-winning field goal by rookie Matt Gay in the final seconds.
"We did a terrible job, one on one pass pro, we didn’t do a good job and they just beat us,'' guard Ali Marpet said. "I don’t know how many sacks we gave up but it was way too many. Too many QB hits. Obviously, it’s a learning experience. Guys have got to get better. I think that it will actually help us in the long run.''
The matador-style blocking began early when tackle Demar Dotson was bull-rushed by Browns defensive end Olivier Vernon on the first series. It continued as defensive lineman Chris Smith beat guard Alex Cappa to the inside and flattened Winston.
The Browns simply took turns after that. Running back Peyton Barber was defeated on a blitz by linebacker Christian Kirksey for a sack. Vernon took Winston down again. Even when Winston got the ball away, he was hit hard despite a holding penalty on running back Andre Ellington.
"The first unit didn’t do a good job of protecting the quarterback,'' Dotson said. "Preseason or not, we didn’t do a good job. We got the quarterback hit too many times. So, that’s just bad football up front so we’ve got to do better.''
Winston finished 9 of 19 passing for 88 yards, most of it coming on two completions to Chris Godwin. But he failed to put any points on the scoreboard.
Worse yet, backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert subluxed his left shoulder when he landed on it after a scramble. That means Ryan Griffin, who leads the NFL in passing this preseason and directed another game-winning drive Friday, will serve as the No. 2 vs. San Francisco Sept. 8.
While the Bucs’ offensive linemen didn’t protect Winston, he had their backs.
"I got to take credit for two of those sacks,'' Winston said. "I’ve got to get the ball out or make a quicker decision. But I know they’re going to fix it.’’
Consider this: The Bucs actually prepared for this game. They practiced as if it were a week during the regular season. They had a scout squad to simulate the Browns’ defense and worked off scripted cards.
And then they hung their quarterback out to dry.
It’s not as if Winston and the first-team offense had had much work this preseason until Friday. They came out after one series in the first two games against the Steelers and Dolphins.
Winston entered Friday’s game 7 of 10 passing for 64 yards and one touchdown in the preseason. The 29 passes are the fewest he’s ever attempted in a preseason. He’s never thrown fewer than 41. Yet he claims he’s ready.
"I know in OTAs and training camp, I have doubled the amount of reps I’ve had since I’ve been a Buc,'' Winston said. "In OTAs, I was throwing 150 balls a day. I’ve doubled my reps. Playtime, not as much. But when I was in there, I think we had some good drives and have done pretty well.''
But this is not the mental picture that Arians wanted the Bucs to carry into the first regular-season game against the 49ers on Sept. 8.
"If it was one guy, we’d try to replace him if we could,'' Arians. said. "We’ll just go back and there’s no panic.''
The starters won’t play again this preseason. All that’s left is the battle for three or four roster spots Thursday at the Cowboys with a bunch of players whose best job opportunities may come with the XFL.
It helps that the Browns’ defensive line — with Vernon, Sheldon Richardson, Myles Garrett and Larry Ogunjobi — is among the best in the NFL.
If there was a silver lining, it’s that the Bucs’ defense hung in there despite horrible field position. It limited the Browns to three field goals in the first half. The defense got its hands on a lot of balls, and safety Jordan Whitehead intercepted Browns quarterback Baker Mayfield to end the first half.
Mayfield went 10-of-26 passing for 72 yards with no touchdowns and a pick. In fact, the Browns had 75 total yards to the Bucs’ 78 at halftime but manged to kick three field goals.
No matter what happens in two weeks, Winston is in a much better place to start this season than he was to start last season.
A year ago, he was preparing to serve a three-game suspension to start the season for violating the league’s personal-conduct policy. Winston watched Ryan Fitzpatrick pass for 400 yards and at least three touchdowns in each of the first three games, twice winning the NFC offensive player of the week award.
It wasn’t enough for Winston just to return to the lineup after the Bucs were embarrassed 48-10 by the Bears in Week 4. He had to make everyone, including then-coach Dirk Koetter, forget about Fitzmagic.
But it’s hard to find receivers when you’re looking over your shoulder. Winston probably tried to do too much, forced too many throws, got behind in some games and made bad decisions. He lost to Atlanta, beat the Browns in overtime and threw four interceptions in a loss to a bad Bengals team.
That earned him the first benching of his career. Winston was humbled by the experience and played much better when he got his job back after Fitzpatrick played poorly in losses to Washington and the Giants.
Maybe in this year of low expectations, the Bucs will surprise.
But none of it will matter if they can’t protect Winston.
“I believe we have a great offensive line,'' Winston said. "I haven’t gotten touched, I haven’t gotten dirty the last two games. You could say it’s because I haven’t played (much), but I say they were doing a great job of protection and we’re going to get better, myself included.''
Perhaps, but the Bucs’ offensive line has to pick up its level of play or it’ll be picking its quarterback off the ground all season.