TAMPA — After allowing nine sacks in the first five games, the Bucs' offensive line has taken a step back in the past two, allowing a combined 10 sacks. That matches the most in the NFL by any team in its past two games.
"We've got to do better as a unit," right tackle Demar Dotson said this week. "We try (going) into the game to have no sacks. That's a goal we have to continue to keep. Each guy, individually, has to have that mind-set: We don't want to see our quarterback get hit. That goes for running backs, tight ends, everybody blocking for that quarterback. We've got to do a better job and keep working at it."
Penalties remain an issue as well. Dotson has had three holding penalties, as has left tackle Anthony Collins, putting them among the team's most penalized players.
The team lost its original starting quarterback, Josh McCown, to a thumb injury in the third game, and protecting starter Mike Glennon has to be the line's first priority.
"Our efforts and the way we have to approach it this week is that we're not going to let the guys touch Mike, and that's how it has to be every week," center Evan Dietrich-Smith said. "We haven't gotten that done in the past two weeks and it's reflected in how we're doing as a unit, which isn't very good. … We're going to make sure that we get back on that track this week."
Collins will likely miss the game with a foot injury, which could press backup Oniel Cousins into a huge role, another test for a line that has started the same five players in all seven games.
The offensive struggles and unable to consistently run the ball early in possessions have set up third-and-long situations where defenses can anticipate passing downs and send pass-rushers accordingly. Sixteen of the Bucs' 19 sacks allowed came on plays where the first-down marker was 6 yards or farther away, including two third-and-long plays in Sunday's loss to Minnesota.
"That's where you find out what an offensive lineman's made of in pass protection," Dotson said. "If it's third and long and you know it's passing, those defensive ends know it's passing and everybody in the stands knows it's passing, that's when you have to bull up and block your guy. There's no scheme in that. It's just sitting back, man on man, and you've got to win."
Coach Lovie Smith said success on the road starts with being able to run the ball, and Cleveland ranks 30th in the league in rushing defense, allowing 143.4 yards per game. Take advantage of that, he says, and the Bucs could be a different team Sunday.
"They need to set the tone for us to run the football," Smith said of the offensive line. "When you go on the road, one of the things you have to do is run the ball. … We talk about being more physical and most of that involves the offensive line and getting into position for our running backs to run the football."
And while the line as a unit must improve, Dotson said each player's individual focus must improve: beat your man, handle your responsibility, and then collectively the sacks will drop.
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"I don't want to have (any) sacks. I don't want to be picking my quarterback up," he said. "Every guy on that offensive line has to have that mentality. It (hasn't) been good enough. It wasn't good enough, by no shape, form or fashion."