TAMPA — This will sound arrogant. Maybe a little immodest, traits not associated with an offensive lineman. In proper context, it wasn't meant that way. But when talking about the Bucs' success running the football the past two games, despite missing their top two running backs, tackle Demar Dotson was also being completely honest.
"Like I said, I don't think it really matters who is back there," Dotson said.
This is not to suggest that Tampa Bay could put a 25-pound frozen turkey behind that line and it would run for 100 yards. Jacquizz Rodgers, who has rushed for 101 and 154 yards, respectively, in the past two games, is no schlub, but he was out of football when the season started. He has taken his bows. Rookie Peyton Barber broke free for a 44-yard touchdown as the Bucs ran through San Francisco like Highway 101 on Sunday.
Dotson was actually crediting running backs coach Tim Spencer when he made that comment.
But face it, the offensive line is the biggest reason for the two-game winning streak and why the Bucs, at 3-3, are back in the thick of the NFC South race.
"It starts with them. It's all about them," quarterback Jameis Winston said. "That's why as a position player, we should give all the props to the offensive line, because without them, nothing is possible."
Here's the thing about offensive linemen: They stick together. You rarely see one of them alone. They move in packs. They are probably the only unit to consistently have dinner together one night per week.
So when the Bucs struggled to a 1-3 start, sometimes throwing the ball 50 times per game, the O-line didn't whine or complain about the fact that their quarterback made their jobs harder, that he hadn't protected the ball, that he took sacks when he could've thrown it out of bounds and lived to see another play.
Instead, Donovan Smith, Kevin Pamphile, Joe Hawley, Ali Marpet and Dotson went to work. More importantly, coach Dirk Koetter put the games on their broad shoulders.
Starting at Carolina three weeks ago, the Bucs ran the ball six straight times and 10 overall in the first clock-consuming drive against the Panthers' front seven. Koetter did it again Sunday. Even when the Bucs fell behind the 49ers 14-0, he didn't abandon the rushing attack, which was averaging 6 yards per attempt.
"They play hard, they play together, they're not perfect," Koetter said. "But I'll take them on my team any day."
Unlike other positions, the Bucs' offensive line hasn't suffered a significant injury, other than the back injury to newcomer J.R. Sweezy. Pamphile moved from backup tackle to starting left guard and has graded consistently the best of any lineman. Smith and Marpet are second-year players and unfinished products. Hawley and Dotson are the sage veterans leading the group.
Offensive line coach George Warhop dismisses the notion that the line is carrying the team.
"I look it as we're always going to do what we're asked to do," he said. "Dirk has never come in and said, 'Hey, we're going to run the ball this week so we have to do better.' We go about game planning and call the game how we see fit to call it.
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"I think the season, there's a process you have to go through every year. It's different this year from last year as far as we've got a new running back, we've got a new left guard, we got two young guys in their second year. I thought early in the year they were doing some good things. It wasn't enough, and it still isn't enough right now. But I think every week we get better."
Not surprisingly, so have the Bucs.