TAMPA — The sample size was minimal, but so were the penalties. With a full autumn of football awaiting the Bucs’ refurbished offensive line, it’s unwise to make conclusions or catcalls about the unit.
But four quarters and one victory into 2023, hope seems to exist where dysfunction once lurked.
Bottom line, the Bucs surrendered one sack and were whistled for no false starts in Sunday’s 20-17 upset of the Vikings at U.S. Bank Stadium. While the former statistic can be attributed in part to a far more mobile quarterback, the latter seemed to surprise even Todd Bowles.
“We don’t want to beat ourselves, we harp on that all the time,” the Bucs coach said Monday afternoon. “Sometimes you get those type of ball games, but to start out the season like that on the road with a crowded atmosphere, especially with the noise they bring, and not get any false starts is impressive.”
Debuting with one player (center Robert Hainsey) still at the same position he played in 2022, the front five held up admirably — if not flawlessly — against Minnesota defensive coordinator Brian Flores’ relentless assortment of blitzes. While flushed from the pocket on several throws, quarterback Baker Mayfield was forced to scramble only three times and was sacked only once.
Moreover, the group was whistled for only two holding penalties, one each on Hainsey and right tackle Luke Goedeke, making his first NFL start at the position.
“I thought they played tough,” Bowles said.
“I thought they did a heck of a job considering all the looks they got. (The Vikings) were sending a lot of pressure all the time; they were almost blitzing every other play if not every play almost, at least it looked that way. I thought those guys stood in there. Obviously, technique can get a little better from the first game, but I thought they stood in there tough.”
Detractors no doubt will point to run-blocking as complicit in the Bucs owning the NFL’s second-worst rushing average (2.2 yards per carry on 33 carries) of Week 1 entering Monday night’s game. But Bowles indicated new coordinator Dave Canales’ commitment to the run was more significant than final stats.
While no run went for longer than 6 yards, the Bucs had 21 of their 33 rushing attempts in the second half, when they had possession for 20 minutes, 3 seconds. The 33 carries were six more than Tampa Bay averaged in 2022.
“Considering the fronts they were playing ... and they kind of had an extra guy every time, the run doesn’t always have to be pretty,” Bowles said.
“If you can get 33 runs in and keep the defense off the field some, it keeps (their defense) out there longer, it keeps them honest and keeps them off Baker some. So it has a double fold. The amount of carries are just as important as the yardage, if not more important.”
Of course, a final verdict on this overhauled unit remains 17 weeks away. More blitz packages are forthcoming, and more elite edge rushers lurk on the schedule.
But an uplifting start beats a series of false ones.
“It wasn’t our prettiest effort by any means, but we finished the right way,” Mayfield said after Sunday’s triumph. “We finished with the ball in our hands. We talked about that coming in here, and that’s what we wanted to do.”
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