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Bucs banking on Pro Bowl-level performance from offensive line Sunday

“We feel like we’ve got to be the reason this team goes,” left guard Ali Marpet said.
Tom Brady (12) and the Bucs will lean on their offensive line, including center Ryan Jensen (66) and left tackle Donovan Smith (76), more than ever during Sunday's game at Carolina.
Tom Brady (12) and the Bucs will lean on their offensive line, including center Ryan Jensen (66) and left tackle Donovan Smith (76), more than ever during Sunday's game at Carolina. [ DOUGLAS R. CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Dec. 23, 2021|Updated Dec. 24, 2021

TAMPA — On Thursday afternoon, the reality of receiving one of the highest NFL honors still was seeping into the Bucs’ newly minted Pro Bowlers.

“It’s amazing,” said veteran center Ryan Jensen, one of three Bucs offensive linemen to earn their first Pro Bowl nod. “Nine years in the league, coming from a Division II school (Colorado State-Pueblo) and getting that recognition, it’s huge. It’s humbling. It’s an honor, to be honest.”

For now, the celebrations cease right there for Jensen, left guard Ali Marpet and right tackle Tristan Wirfs. Basking has given way to business.

In a sense, the Pro Bowl announcements Wednesday — five total Bucs made the NFC team, with eight players named as alternates, after voting by fans, players and coaches — couldn’t have arrived at a more timely juncture for the offensive linemen. On Sunday against the Panthers, that trio — the nucleus of a unit that has remained mostly intact the last two seasons — can punctuate its Pro Bowl recognition.

Most of Tom Brady’s most prominent weapons will be absent with injuries, and some of the replacements haven’t developed similar clairvoyance with their quarterback. As a result, pass plays could take a tick longer to develop, requiring more diligent protection.

Or if Brady and offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich believe the best chance of winning exists on the ground, the unit’s run-blocking chops will be challenged.

“I think it’s important (that) you’ve got to find different ways to win with different players and different avenues for success,” said Brady, chosen for his 15th Pro Bowl. “It’s not always the same thing that’s going to win all the time.”

Unless you’re referring to the lone offensive position group that has managed to remain the same. With so many prominent skill guys sidelined, Sunday’s contest — perhaps more than any other game this season — will rest on the broad backs of the offensive linemen.

“We feel like we’ve got to be the reason this team goes, always, but especially when guys are down,” Marpet said Thursday. “We’ve got to step up and play a big role, and we know that, so I think we can rise to that occasion.”

The quintet of Jensen, Marpet, Wirfs, right guard Alex Cappa (a Pro Bowl alternate) and left tackle Donovan Smith (a Pro Bowl snub, according to his teammates and Leftwich) has started 13 of 14 games this year (Marpet missed the Colts game with an abdominal injury), and started 12 of 16 regular-season games in 2020.

Its abysmal collective performance in Sunday’s 9-0 loss to the Saints — when Brady was sacked a season-high four times — was an aberration. Since the start of the 2020 season, the unit ranked first in the NFL in fewest sacks allowed per pass attempt (3.4 percent) entering Thursday and games without allowing a sack (10).

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When the Bucs have chosen to run, their yardage per attempt (4.4) ranked a respectable 14th.

“They’ve been the strength of our team all season,” Brady said.

“I love playing with those guys. They take a lot of pride in what they do. Everyone loves that they got the recognition, because they deserve it. And at the same time, they want to go earn it and make sure that they’re playing their best football at this time of year.”

The challenge before the group is being embraced. Though a mess on offense, Carolina (5-9) possesses one of the more imposing defensive fronts in football.

Led by Pro Bowl defensive end Brian Burns (nine sacks) and linebacker Haason Reddick (11), the Panthers were tied for 10th in the NFL with 36 sacks and tied for sixth with 6.7 yards allowed per pass attempt.

Brady and his blockers will face this challenge minus their leading receiver (Chris Godwin), top rusher (Leonard Fournette) and possibly the team leader in touchdown catches (Mike Evans).

“As an offensive line, we always want to take over games,” Jensen said.

“Obviously, with the guys we’ve lost, we’re going to have to definitely do that. We are going to have to play our best game every game from here on out until we get some of these guys healthy.”

Contact Joey Knight at jknight@tampabay.com. Follow @TBTimes_Bulls.

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