The Bucs know they need to improve their blocking for quarterback Jameis Winston. But he has to do a better job of protecting himself.
Winston sprained his right ankle in Monday's 25-11 preseason win over the Bengals when he tripped over the feet of center Jeremiah Warren and was sandwiched between defensive linemen Geno Atkins and Wallace Gilberry. The injury was not serious, and he is expected to start Saturday against the Browns.
While that hit might have been unavoidable, there have been others that Winston contributed to. He also has scored two rushing touchdowns, diving for the pylon or the goal line in each instance. In the first preseason game at Minnesota, he took a blow to the head when he failed to slide properly.
"That's something I've got to learn quickly," Winston said. "It's going to take some time for me to adjust. But I know I've got to protect my body, and I've got to protect this team by staying injury-free.''
Offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said the Bucs are working with Winston to make better decisions to preserve his health, whether it's throwing the football away to prevent a sack, sliding feet-first to avoid a big hit, or running out of bounds.
"Know when the journey is over? That's too far over my head," Koetter said. "I grew up in Pocatello, Idaho, and when I was old enough, I used to drive to Jackpot, Nev., to play blackjack, so I say, 'know when to cut your losses.'
"Jameis is such a competitor, he has a hard time cutting his losses. He doesn't ever want to cut his losses. That's good and bad. That's well documented. He's going to make some plays, and we're going to love him, and there's going to be some other times we're going to say, 'Get down! Get down!' That's how it's going to be, so get used to it. We're working on it, but get used to it."
Winston says he knows the Bucs have too much invested in him as the No. 1 overall pick and franchise quarterback to expose himself to more injury than necessary. The best quarterbacks in the NFL — whether it's Peyton Manning, Tom Brady or Aaron Rodgers — find ways to be available almost every week during the regular season.
"I got to learn that, because I love to compete, I love to be competitive," Winston said. "But at the end of the day, it's like Coach Koetter says, you've got to know just when to leave it alone. And I'm young right now and I love the action. You know, as quarterbacks, we don't get hit at practice, so I want to go in there in the preseason and get it out of the way."
At 6 feet 4, 230 pounds, the rookie has the size to absorb a lot of punishment. He never missed a game in two seasons at Florida State due to injury. Although not the most fleet of foot (he ran a 4.97 and 4.99 40-yard dash at the NFL combine), he still has the ability to extend plays and move out of the pocket when protection breaks down.
"I think the biggest thing for a lot of rookies is realizing how long the (NFL) season is," center Evan Smith said. "The biggest thing is when you're in the game, if it's not there, just learn to live another down.
"At times the defense wins and you just cut your losses and move on. There's always a lot of football to play."
Coach Lovie Smith said despite all the warnings, he knows there are times when Winston will have to take risks on the field.
"We talk to him about those situations," Lovie Smith said. "But as far as running, we don't run an option football. We want to protect our quarterback. Sometimes the play calls for you to get what you can and get down. We need to work on him getting down. We're not going to put him at risk an awful lot, but it's football.
"Believe me, we know who we have there, and we want to keep him protected."