TAMPA — The Bucs admit they are trying to thread the needle a bit on offense this season with a risky plan. They're putting rookie QB Jameis Winston behind a mostly inexperienced or ineffective offensive line that includes rookies LT Donovan Smith and RG Ali Marpet.
Winston was sacked seven times in three preseason games, the most of any quarterback in the NFL in that stretch.
On some plays, Winston held the ball too long or made the wrong protection adjustment. Overall, the pass blocking wasn't great.
But coach Lovie Smith wants to remind you that it was the preseason. More important, he's putting faith in offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter to hide the Bucs' weaknesses.
"You're nervous, but we kind of control how many situations we put (Winston) in like that," Smith said. "If you know that you're not as strong in some area, you've got to find a way to help that position out a little bit, whatever you have to do, whether that be the running game or anything else, staying out of third-and-long situations.
"There are very few teams in the league when you talk about 22 starters and they're all good. … Everybody doesn't have a great 10-year pro at left tackle or right tackle or right guard. I have been on good football teams, and I know what we have at certain positions. You can still win. Even at those positions, we talk about young guys and stuff, we don't know who they are yet, either. They could be a little bit better than we think."
It's important to note that Koetter has been through this before. Last season Koetter had to operate in Atlanta with an offensive line that lost all five starters to injury by mid October. The Falcons used four centers and still managed to average 378.2 yards per game, good for eighth in the 32-team NFL.
Koetter did it by having QB Matt Ryan get the ball out of his hand quickly with screens to the running backs and receivers, as well as slowing the rush with draw plays. Those are things you didn't see a lot of in the preseason.
"There's different things you can do to help your protection or help any individual guy that is struggling," Koetter said. "We are not doing any of that in the preseason.
"We are trying to teach a system, and then when we really drill down on a game plan and matchups, we'll worry more about that. … There are some things we can do, and we've been practicing them out there. We haven't necessarily taken them to the game yet."
Game planning also will help. The preseason is for installing the offense. The game plan will be streamlined for next Sunday's season opener to address the specific strengths and weaknesses of the Titans' defense.
"I don't worry a whole lot about that in the preseason because we want to learn the system and see (Marpet) play and compete," Koetter said.
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"But there are a lot of things you can do to help this guy and help that guy. There's a bunch of stuff. But I don't care to get into right now."
CUTTING LOSSES: Among the players cut to reach the 53-man roster were two rookies, WR/KR Kaelin Clay, a sixth-round draft pick from Utah, and FB Joey Iosefa, a seventh-rounder from Hawaii. Late-round picks rarely make it in the NFL, which is why many clubs try to deal those picks before or during the draft. Bucs GM Jason Licht knows he may be criticized for it, but he said recently that he would rather cut the losses and move on than hang on to players simply because they were part of a draft class.