TAMPA — The task of containing Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald is difficult on its own, and the Bucs might have to do so without being at full strength on their offensive line.
Starting center Ryan Jensen missed practice Wednesday with a back injury and didn’t participate in Thursday’s session open to the media, making his status for Sunday’s game in Los Angeles uncertain.
If Jensen can’t play, veteran swing lineman Earl Watford could make his first NFL start at center — he has 22 starts but none since Week 13 of the 2017 season and all at tackle or guard — or the Bucs could shift left guard Ali Marpet there.
Donald, the reigning NFL defensive player of the year, offers a tough challenge. Last season he led the league with 201/2 sacks and 25 tackles for a loss.
“It’s hard to find someone better than Aaron Donald,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said. “He’s really one of greatest to ever play. And we’ll give him that respect.”
The Bucs have allowed 10 sacks in their first three games, their average of 3.3 a game ranking 23rd in the league entering Thursday.
Defensive lineman Patrick O’Connor, promoted from the practice squad Wednesday, has played the role of Donald for the Bucs in practice this week.
“Just give great effort, use great hands,” O’Connor said. “He displays the most athleticism as a defensive lineman, so I just give my best effort with it. Just constant hand movement, fast feet all the way through, power, just the whole complete package. It’s what he does after (his first step). He’s constantly moving. He’s always going to his second move, third move.”
Marpet said Donald “kind of has the green light to do what he needs.”
“He’s able to disrupt plays,” Marpet said. “He’s definitely got a great first step. He’s athletic. He’s great with his hands. One of the things why he’s so good is he has a lot of different pass rushes and he’s able to do a lot of things really well.”
Defending the run
Leftwich said Jameis Winston’s fourth-quarter interception against the Giants on Sunday didn’t influence the Bucs running the ball on their entire next drive, ultimately forcing them to settle for a field goal that kept it a one-score game late.
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Leading 31-25, Winston was intercepted, but the Bucs got the ball back two plays later on Shaq Barrett’s forced fumble. The Bucs then ran the ball seven straight plays, moving 37 yards on six straight handoffs to Ronald Jones before a handoff to Peyton Barber on a run-pass option play netted no gain on third and 2 from the New York 5-yard line.
In total, Winston went nine plays before his next pass attempt.
“We’re trying to win games,” Leftwich said. “And we’re trying to put ourselves in the best position to win games. We weren’t predicting the nine runs. We were just having success on the ground, and we’ve just got to find a way to score points there if it’s running or throwing, whatever it is.
“But we felt as though — I didn’t know it was nine straight runs — those were the plays that were best for us to score points.”
— Defensive tackle Vita Vea returned to practice after missing Wednesday’s session with a groin injury.
— Linebacker Devin White and cornerback Jamel Dean didn’t participate in the full-squad practice but were running on a side field.
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at email@example.com. Follow @EddieInTheYard.