TAMPA ― Durable Donovan Smith is the last offensive lineman standing for the Bucs among the players that started Super Bowl 55 and two playoff games last season.
Center Ryan Jensen injured his knee the second day of training camp and is on injured reserve. Guard Ali Marpet retired. Guard Alex Cappa signed with the Bengals as a free agent. Tackle Tristan Wirfs will miss 3-4 weeks with a high ankle sprain.
So, Smith is charged with protecting Tom Brady’s blind side like an heirloom, knowing the seven-time Super Bowl-winning quarterback can’t be replaced.
But Smith, at 29, is having one of the worst seasons of his eight-year career. The left tackle has allowed six sacks, which ties for the third-most in the NFL. He also has been penalized seven times for 55 yards, which ties for the 11th-most.
Those numbers could be worse, but Smith missed two games with a hyperextended elbow, an injury that certainly could have factored into his performance.
In Sunday’s 23-17 overtime loss at Cleveland, Smith yielded 1-1/2 sacks to defensive end Myles Garrett, who also had a tackle for loss and three quarterback hits.
Worse, the big plays against Smith came at inopportune times for the Bucs.
Leading by a touchdown early in the fourth quarter, the Bucs drove to the Browns 41-yard line before Smith was flagged for a false start on third and 6, pushing them back 5 yards. They gained 9 on a completion to Cameron Brate to the Cleveland 37.
But rather than go for it on fourth and 2, head coach Todd Bowles elected to take a delay-of-game penalty and Jake Carmada punted the ball into the end zone for a touchback, netting only 17 yards on field position.
Clinging to a touchdown lead with the ball at their own 20 with 2:35 remaining, Rachaad White, running around Smith’s side, was dropped for a 3-yard loss on first down. After an incomplete pass, Brady was sacked by Garrett and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The possession managed took only 15 seconds off the clock, setting up the Browns’ game-tying drive.
In overtime, the Bucs faced third and 4 at the Browns’ 47. Once again, Garrett pressured Brady, but he shoveled a pass to White for a 10-yard gain and a first down at the 37. However, Smith was flagged for illegal use of hands to the face while trying to block Garrett, effectively ending the threat.
Why the Bucs didn’t do more to help Smith, who was struggling, is anyone’s guess. At minimum, they could have put a tight end on his side or used a running back to chip block Garrett.
Did coaches think about helping Smith?
“A lot,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said.
“There’s a lot of situations that go into a game. You’re trying to help a couple people. Football happened. We didn’t get the job done.”
Making matters worse, Wirfs had to be carted off the field during the Bucs’ final drive in overtime.
“Anytime you lose that type of guy — he’s a special guy — the most important thing is the guy is always dependable,” Leftwich said. “You didn’t have to think about Tristan over there. You put him in situations and try to think about everybody else, so it’s tough when you lose a guy like that. He means so much to us.”
Stay updated on the Buccaneers
Subscribe to our free Bucs RedZone newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
Josh Wells will replace Wirfs at right tackle, but this is not the best time to be shaking up the offensive line.
The Saints — particularly on defense — have owned the Bucs the past several seasons. While Tampa Bay snapped a seven-game, regular-season losing streak to the Saints with a 20-10 win at New Orleans in Week 2, the Saints have won four straight at Raymond James Stadium.
The Bucs always have had trouble containing defensive lineman Cameron Jordan and linebacker Demario Davis.
“They’re a very good defense,” Brady said. “They’re very good at the D-line. They have one of the best linebackers playing in football in Demario. Very good in the secondary. I think they’ve invested a lot in their defense. Just very talented.
“I think they make it a very physical game. Tough to run the ball. They challenge you in the pass game. Turnovers have been a big story against us in the times we’ve won and the times we’ve lost.”
If the Bucs can eke out a win Monday night, they will have a bigger test the following Sunday at San Francisco containing Nick Bosa.
The question for Leftwich is, which tackle do you help? Wells or the struggling Smith?
“Josh is tough,” Bowles said. “He’s played in the game a long time. He’s not Tristan, obviously. He just has to make sure he does the things that he knows how to do and makes sure he plays his ballgame. He doesn’t have to try to be anybody else. ... We expect him to step in and play well.”
While acknowledging that Smith has had his ups and downs, Bowles said the team continues to have faith in him, as well.
“He has had some good games, he’s had some not-so-good games,” Bowles said. “We trust him. We expect him to come out and play well Monday.”
Still, at the end of the day, it comes down to performance.
“Hope is not a strategy,” Brady said. “You’ve got to go out there and earn it. You’ve got to do it.”
• • •
Sign up for the Bucs RedZone newsletter to get updates and analysis on the latest team and NFL news from Bucs beat writer Joey Knight.