Bucs' Dirk Koetter praises work of fill-in center Ben Gottschalk

Ben Gottschalk draws praise from the Bucs for his performance in his NFL debut.
Ben Gottschalk draws praise from the Bucs for his performance in his NFL debut.
Published Nov. 15, 2016

TAMPA — Among the unsung contributors in the Bucs' 36-10 home win Sunday over the Bears was C Ben Gottschalk, who was promoted from the practice squad Saturday and pressed into duty due to injury for his NFL debut, playing all but six snaps.

"I thought Ben filled in very admirably," coach Dirk Koetter said of the 24-year-old from SMU who finished last season the Bucs' practice squad then spent the first 10 weeks of this season there.

Gottschalk spent extra time preparing this week with both Joe Hawley, who missed the game with a knee injury, and Evan Smith, who started Sunday but left after sustaining a left knee injury. An MRI on Monday showed an MCL sprain likely to sideline Smith for 2-4 weeks.

"It's been a long time coming," Gottschalk said of his first big break. "It's taken a lot of work to get to this point and feels really good. Gratifying, absolutely. You kind of get thrown into it before you really have time to react. There were a couple of plays I wish I could get back, but I played okay."

Koetter wasn't as high on rookie lineman Caleb Benenoch, who in his debut played every snap at left guard but showed his inexperience.

"Caleb had kind of a rocky debut," Koetter said. "He's going to look back on this someday. We have very high hopes and high expectations of Caleb, but that wasn't one of his better days."

One guard who isn't likely to help the injury-depleted line is J.R. Sweezy, who signed as a free agent in March but has yet to practice after offseason back surgery. This week is the end of a window in which the Bucs can bring him back to practice from the physically unable to perform list, but Koetter said it's "probably doubtful" he can do that. "I've seen no indication that that's forthcoming," he said, suggesting Sweezy won't play again this season.

MUCH BETTER: Improved communication on the field and increased pressure on the quarterback were major parts of the Bucs' strong play on defense Sunday, defensive coordinator Mike Smith said.

The Bucs had given up 73 points and a combined 1,087 yards in their previous two games, home losses to the Raiders and Falcons. But Smith said his defense had a good week of practice, getting everyone on the same page with the defensive game plan then executing it as they'd been coached.

"We were doing a very good job communicating," Smith said. "The guys were well aware of what we were going to run and they executed outstandingly."

The Bucs forced four turnovers in the first half — the Bears had nine total turnovers in their first eight games — including a red-zone fumble forced on a sack by rookie DE Noah Spence and a pick-six from S Chris Conte, set up by pressure from blitzing LB Daryl Smith.

"We wanted to put pressure on the quarterback, to get him off the spot and make him uncomfortable, and I thought they guys did an excellent job early on," Smith said.

Contact Greg Auman at and (813) 310-2690. Follow @gregauman.