Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Laying the Bucs offensive struggles on the line

Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) is brought down after intercepting a pass from Jameis Winston.
Dallas Cowboys cornerback Orlando Scandrick (32) is brought down after intercepting a pass from Jameis Winston.
Published Dec. 20, 2016

TAMPA — Needing a touchdown to win and, at one point, a field goal to tie Dallas on Sunday night, the Bucs let defensive end David Irving wreck everything.

Who? Exactly.

Irving is an undrafted free agent from Iowa State, plucked from Arizona's practice squad in 2015. Against the Bucs, and specifically veteran right tackle Gosder Cherilus, Irving played like Ed "Too Tall" Jones. He had two sacks and five quarterback hits and batted down a pass in Dallas' 26-20 victory over Tampa Bay.

Prior to Sunday, Irving had one career sack. It came this season against the Packers in a game in which he also forced three fumbles.

Cherilus suffered a groin strain blocking on a screen pass to Charles Sims after the Bucs had recovered a fumble at the Dallas 45-yard line. He tried to tough it out but gave up a sack and more pressures before he was replaced in the final drive by Leonard Wester, an undrafted free agent from a Division II compass school called Missouri Western State.

"I'm not one to pin all our woes on the offensive line," Bucs coach Dirk Koetter said Monday. "We all took turns."

If Koetter won't do it, the line forms here. Too often this Bucs offensive line has put up all the resistance of saloon doors.

Jameis Winston has done much of his best work scrambling. Even during the five-game winning streak that ended Sunday, Tampa Bay hasn't been able to run the football or protect Winston.

It's not like the Bucs were playing the Dallas Doomsday Defense. The Cowboys entered the game tied for 20th in the NFL with 26 sacks. They sacked Winston four times, forced a fumble and intercepted him three times, heaves at the end of the half and the game.

"We're having some trouble in multiple spots," Koetter said. "We've been too inconsistent overall on offense. We got out of our rhythm. We've been on a nice little roll of not turning the ball over, and we got back to putting our defense in bad positions.

"We had a couple of chances early, but we've got to finish drives with touchdowns. Those first two drives we kicked field goals and left eight points out there. Those look pretty big at the end of the game, and couple offensive turnovers led to field goals the other way."

Winston didn't play particularly well beyond the third quarter. But give him the Cowboys offensive line, which protects Dak Prescott like an heirloom, and Winston could read his mail before delivering a strike to a receiver.

Cherilus will be an easy target for the blame game. Starting right tackle Demar Dotson is still in the NFL's concussion protocol and has missed two games. Cherilus also struggled the previous week against Saints defensive end Cameron Jordan, whom the Bucs will see again Saturday afternoon in New Orleans.

But it's not just the pass protection. The Bucs offensive line can't open holes for Doug Martin.

Remember how the offseason began when general manager Jason Licht moved heaven and the Glazers' vault to sign Martin to a five-year, $35.75 million deal? He has missed half the season with a hamstring pull. But Martin has been back for six games and hasn't cracked the 100-yard rushing plateau.

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He's averaging 2.9 yards with 144 rushing attempts, the worst in the NFL among backs with a minimum of 100 carries.

Koetter said the Bucs were also slow off the snap on several key plays Sunday at AT&T Stadium, where the noise made it difficult to communicate.

"The fact that the crowd was very loud, that's how Tony Dungy's team in Indianapolis made their money," Koetter said. "Up in a domed stadium and they can pin their ears back when they know they have to throw it.

"That's no excuse. … We have to find a way to move the football. We've got to be able to move it."

The Bucs enter the final two games in the NFC playoff hunt. But if you can't run the football in December — when the weather is miserable in places such as Green Bay — you have no chance of advancing anyway.