TAMPA — Chances are, Tom Brady is getting knocked down by rampaging pass rushers.
Chances are, the Bucs will not run the ball effectively against the 49ers, Donovan Smith will get called for holding, and social media will get loud and unmerciful.
Not that any of this is inevitable, mind you. It just seems a reasonable assumption when the NFL’s top-rated defense lines up against an offensive line in the middle of an emergency remodeling.
After posting the two highest-scoring seasons in franchise history in 2020-21, the Bucs are on their way to their lowest offensive output since 2014. By the way, they went 2-14 that season.
So, is all of this the fault of offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich? Is Brady’s increasing age, dwindling mobility and reluctance to stand in the pocket the reason? Or is the problem an offensive line that has been revamped, banged-up and rebuilt again?
There’s probably a little truth to all those theories, although the offensive line has been front and center in recent weeks. It’s an occupational hazard at a position that only gets attention when things go wrong.
“I guess so, right? If your name ain’t getting called, you’re doing good,” Smith said. “That’s just the way it goes. Unsung heroes. It’s always been that way.”
In some ways, you might consider this season cosmic payback. A year ago, the Bucs had the same five linemen show up in the starting lineup for the first 16 games of the season.
This year, not so much. One guard retired in February, and the other left via free agency in March. Center Ryan Jensen tore up his knee on the first day of training camp, and Smith suffered a hyperextended elbow in the first half of the first game of the season. Luke Goedeke and Tristan Wirfs have also been watching games from the sideline in street clothes.
All of that upheaval has clearly diminished the line’s effectiveness this season, but that’s not much consolation when you’re struggling to get above .500 and flying across the country to play the top team in the NFC West.
The offensive line’s shortcomings went mostly unnoticed early in the season because Brady is so efficient at getting rid of the ball quickly, but it soon became apparent that Tampa Bay could not find a consistent running game, nor a downfield passing attack.
The Bucs have often been limited to quick slants, screen passes and a prayer. And it hasn’t taken long for defenses to figure out the playbook has shrunk as faith has diminished in the offensive line.
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“Play-calling — I always tell you guys — is about the 11 guys that are in the huddle. I really mean it when I say that,” Leftwich said. “Obviously, there’s things you’d like to do every week but you’ve got to (call plays) according to the 11 guys in the huddle.
“I don’t think people understand how many guys were supposed to start (and) got hurt.”
While every play involves individual battles, there is a cohesiveness to the offensive line that is built through repetition and trust. Picking up blitzes, double-teams, creating holes. These all require a group of blockers with faith that the guy next to them is doing his part.
Going into the 13th game of the season, the Bucs have already started three left tackles, two left guards and two right tackles. Center Robert Hainsey is a virtual rookie in a new position, and right guard Shaq Mason was a free-agent signing in the off-season.
“You’re always trying to fill in the spot to where there’s no dropoff,” said left guard Nick Leverett, who replaced Goedeke who replaced the retired Ali Marpet. “With Ali gone, the emphasis was not trying to be another Ali but still bringing what he brought to the table. Ali used to communicate a lot, he was very vocal and that’s one of the things the coaches want me to do.”
While Smith will be the only starter from 2021 still in the lineup this weekend against San Francisco, he has also generated much ire from Bucs fans. According to Pro Football Focus evaluations, he is having the worst season of his career and ranks 65th out of 70 offensive tackles with at least 200 snaps in pass-blocking situations.
He hinted Friday at the possibility that the hyperextended elbow has been a season-long issue, but also said it is his job to show up and perform every week.
“What do you want me to say? I mean, it is what it is,” Smith said. “It’s the game of football. I play a lot of snaps, a lot of games.”
The truth is, the Bucs began the week with more pass attempts than any team in the NFL and they have the lowest percentage (6.1) of sacks/holding penalties than any offensive line in the league.
Maybe that’s Brady’s quick release, maybe that’s the scaled-down game plan or maybe the offensive line has not struggled quite as much as the accepted narrative.
None of that matters this weekend. Not against Nick Bosa. Not against the NFL’s top defense. It’s another test for a reconstructed offensive line.
Chances are, stuff will happen.
John Romano can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @romano_tbtimes.
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