TAMPA — Quarterbacks and more rules to protect them have turned the NFL into an arms race. But it's still the hand-to-hand combat taking place in the trenches that determines games. To that end, the Bucs need to improve — now — on both sides of the ball.
Start with rookie LT Donovan Smith, who was beaten for a sack by an inside spin move in the 26-16 preseason-opening loss to the Vikings on Aug. 15.
Second-year pro Kevin Pamphile is pushing Smith for the starting spot, but you would think the tie would go to the second-round draft pick from Penn State.
Rookie Ali Marpet had some good snaps in the run game against the Vikings, but he still needs to improve his pass protection.
The injury to RT Demar Dotson suffered against the Vikings was a huge setback. Dotson said he will miss six weeks with a sprained left MCL. Credit the Bucs for moving swiftly to sign free agent Gosder Cherilus. Despite missing the offseason recovering from arthroscopic knee surgery, he practiced pretty well last week.
When Dotson returns, the team will have depth at tackle. Taking a long-term view, the injury forced its hand but addressed a concern.
"(Cherilus is) a big, experienced veteran," C Evan Smith said. "The guy has played a lot of football. (He was a) first-round draft pick (in 2008). He knows what he is doing out there. It's just mentally he has to catch up on all the installs, he has to catch up on the offense.
"It's a really nice changeup to have somebody come in and show some of the young guys what a veteran looks like."
The defensive line is deep with tackles to line up next to three-time Pro Bowl DT Gerald McCoy. But outside rushers are few and far between. Jacquies Smith, George Johnson and T.J. Fatinikun missed practice last week.
Lawrence Sidbury, playing on his fourth team in three years, had the best game against the Vikings. He forced a fumble, had a fumble recovery and recorded a tackle.
"There is concern when guys aren't practicing," coach Lovie Smith said. "But they are just nicks, which, I guess, is a positive."
MORE MOORE: The Bucs aren't happy with the play at their nickel defensive back position, to say the least.
Leonard Johnson and Isaiah Frey were burned for big gains against the Vikings last week. That position also only produced one interception last season, and Lovie Smith has said it should account for five a year.
No wonder he moved Sterling Moore from the outside, where he had been working at cornerback, to nickel defensive back last week. The Bucs believe that's an impact position.
BANNER YEAR: Receiver Mike Evans finished third in the rookie of the year voting last season, so he's used to accolades after bursting onto the scene. But he wasn't prepared to see his likeness adorning a corner of Raymond James Stadium.
"It's a surreal moment," Evans said. "I didn't know it was up there until one of our PR guys told me and I rolled home that way.
"I've seen it, and it's humbling. It's great. I'm blessed. There's nothing else to really say about it."