TAMPA — As a rule, offensive linemen are the strong, silent types. They never met a microphone or camera they really liked.
But communication is the key to their success. It's especially true of the pre-snap chatter that matters between sage veterans such as Logan Mankins, Joe Hawley and Gosder Cherilus with rookies Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet.
"I don't think he's been wrong once," Smith said of Mankins, the 11-year vet who is a savant at analyzing defensive looks. "I challenged him once, saying, 'You sure?' He said, 'Just do it.' "
Mankins, who is questionable with a groin strain for today's game against the Jaguars, has been the anchor to an offensive line that caused a bigger preseason concern than turnover-prone rookie quarterback Jameis Winston.
But in the past two games, the offensive line has become one of Tampa Bay's most consistent units.
On Sept. 27, against Texans defensive end J.J. Watt and one of the league's best pass rushes, they protected Winston well, not allowing a sack. Then in last Sunday's loss to Carolina, the Bucs ran for 141 yards, led by Doug Martin's 20 carries for 106 yards and a touchdown.
"I think those questions have been answered," receiver Vincent Jackson said. "I think moving forward we're very confident in all those guys. We were at the beginning of the season, but the fact that we have the live shots now and they've gone out there and proved it on Sundays, it's been a big confidence boost for them as well."
Smith, a second-round pick from Penn State, gave up a sack on one of his first plays of the season. He hasn't been perfect, but at 6 feet 6, 338 pounds is a mountain of a man with good feet and decent athleticism. Two weeks ago, he was singled on Texans defensive end Jadeveon Clowney and held the No. 1 pick in 2014 to only two tackles. He credits Mankins for his in-game adjustments.
"He sees things before I can and is communicating it to me, 'Hey, watch out for this, watch out for that,' " Smith said. "It helps a lot and takes a lot off my plate so I can just settle in and play."
Marpet has made a rapid rise from Division III Hobart (N.Y.) College to starting right guard. He might have the biggest upside, with his combination of quickness and power, and has been a big part of the Bucs' running game.
"At the end of the day, certain looks it's his first time seeing them. It's probably my 10th," Cherilus said. "But I just go talk to him. He talks back. He's very well received."
This is not the line the Bucs planned when training camp began. First, right tackle Demar Dotson sprained his knee in the first preseason game. He was placed on injured reserve/designated for return and will miss at least seven games. The Bucs signed Cherilus, a free agent who had more than 100 starts for the Lions and Colts.
Then starting center Evan Smith went down with an ankle sprain on Sept. 20 in the Bucs' 26-19 win over the Saints. Fortunately, Hawley worked in the system of offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter for three seasons in Atlanta.
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"I told you a few weeks ago, initially not only was everybody worried about Jameis, but they were also worried about the offensive line," Koetter said. "We said several weeks ago our O-line is going to be fine.
"Our two guards played good football here this last week. We're working with our second center. Guys playing consistently together on the front. One of the interceptions was also a pressure. They ran a blitz, the running back missed his check, so we had a free runner in the quarterback's face. We can stand up here and make excuses of why this happened or why that happened, but our offensive line is doing fine."
So while Winston rides a roller coaster of performance, the players protecting him have begun to establish a standard with which the Bucs can win.
"It's a good mesh of age and youth," Mankins said. "I really like the young guys. They're coming along. They're both athletic guys and strong guys and most importantly, smart guys. They get what we want to do and they don't make many mistakes and that's great. They're willing to listen and learn and follow what you think is the right way to do it and that's been the best part about those guys.
"We don't want hills and valleys. We want to keep going on an upward momentum. It hasn't been pretty, but we're getting better and hopefully as the year goes on, we'll continue to improve."