Quick, give this Bucs position group some love before it’s too late

John Romano | Come Sept. 9, the networks will be all over Brady and Gronk, but Tampa Bay’s offensive line has played a huge role around here.
With Donovan Smith and the rest of the Tampa Bay offensive line protecting him, Tom Brady had an easy time completing 11-of-14 passes for 154 yards against the Texans in a 23-16 victory Saturday night.
With Donovan Smith and the rest of the Tampa Bay offensive line protecting him, Tom Brady had an easy time completing 11-of-14 passes for 154 yards against the Texans in a 23-16 victory Saturday night. [ JUSTIN REX | AP ]
Published Aug. 29, 2021

Soon, there will be frenzy. Perhaps a touch of hysteria.

That’s just the way it goes when your team has a Lombardi Trophy in the lobby and Tom Brady in the huddle. There will be noise, there will be excitement, there will be millions of eyes on the Buccaneers when the NFL’s regular season begins in 11 days.

So perhaps this is a good moment to pause in reflection.

Stop worrying about how many passes Mike Evans will catch or how many touchdowns Chris Godwin will score. No need to ponder if Ronald Jones will get more carries or whether Leonard Fournette will play a larger role. And, for heaven’s sake, don’t waste any more time imagining new routes for Rob Gronkowski to run.

Instead, salute the five guys who are about to do the heavy lifting.

On a team of icons and personalities, there aren’t a lot of bouquets being thrown at the feet of the offensive line. They’re like a set of tires on an expensive race car, indispensable but only included in the conversation when something goes wrong.

Which makes this as good a time as any to salute them.

Tampa Bay’s starters finally got some extended playing time in Saturday night’s 23-16 victory against Houston in the preseason finale, and the offensive line reminded you why this team has a chance to score a gazillion or so points in 2021.

After the opening drive got off to a wobbly start because of a motion penalty on receiver Antonio Brown, the first-team offense was literally flawless. The Bucs followed up a 91-yard drive with a 93-yard drive, picking up either a first down or a touchdown on 11 of 15 plays.

Yes, the receivers looked good. And Brady was Brady. But the O-line kept both drives moving smoothly and kept Brady’s jersey free of blood, sweat or tears.

“Great protection,” coach Bruce Arians said after the game. “Guys were where they were supposed to be.”

Bucs center Ryan Jensen looks on from the sideline Saturday's game in Houston.
Bucs center Ryan Jensen looks on from the sideline Saturday's game in Houston. [ MATT PATTERSON | Associated Press ]

A few days ago, Arians threatened to keep the starters on the field in the third quarter if he wasn’t impressed with how they performed in the first half. Instead, four minutes into the second quarter, the offensive line was given the rest of the night off.

“The O-line did a great job in protection and the receivers all made plays,” Brady said.

Is that a precursor of what’s to come? Well, you should remember few things in life are less meaningful than preseason football games, and few NFL teams are less disorganized than the Houston Texans. So don’t read too much into those two scoring drives.

On the other hand, these offensive linemen — Alex Cappa, Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet, Donovan Smith and Tristan Wirfs — deserve a lot more credit than they received during the Super Bowl run last season.

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With a quarterback who was 43, playing on a bad knee and incapable of outrunning practically anyone on the field, the Bucs offensive line had the second-best sack percentage in the NFL in 2020. Of course, Brady’s savvy and ability to get rid of the ball quickly had a lot to do with that, but it was still the lowest sack percentage a Brady-led team had seen since 2009.

It is not a brute squad that the Bucs have put together. They’re not particularly adept at running the ball and they don’t always inspire confidence in short-yardage situations. But, for a pass-happy game plan, this offensive line was surprisingly efficient last year.

The line had a pretty high percentage of holding penalties in 2020, but that’s preferable to getting your Hall of Fame quarterback hit more times than necessary.

Best of all, the line should be better in 2021. Smith has taken heat in the past, but his blocking grades have increased every year he’s been in the league. Marpet was one of the NFL’s highest-rate guards last season and Wirfs is already playing at a Pro Bowl level.

If there’s a reason to worry, it’s the line’s depth. The way the second and third teams have performed in the preseason have not inspired a lot of confidence should Jensen go down at center, or Smith/Wirfs at either tackle.

While Brady went untouched Saturday night, Blaine Gabbert and Kyle Trask were sacked a combined four times once the first team left the field.

Honestly, at this point, that feels like a little picky. Around here, we’re familiar with what bad teams look like and so it’s probably best to just take this moment to appreciate an offense that’s got so much going for it.

“The exciting thing is we understand how far we can go,” Godwin said. “We’re excited for where we’re at, we’re excited for where we’re going.”

John Romano can be reached at Follow @romano_tbtimes.

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