Young offensive line struggling for Bucs

Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant sacks Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston on Saturday.
Browns defensive end Desmond Bryant sacks Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston on Saturday.
Published Aug. 31, 2015

TAMPA — It's preseason, and that's the only excuse you can make. Truth is, the Bucs offensive line already is the worst in the NFL at protecting the quarterback.

Not just any quarterback. We're talking about the No. 1 overall draft pick, Jameis Winston, who is one hit from turning this Bucs season from one of hope to nope.

Tampa Bay has allowed 13 sacks in three games, more than any team in the league. Winston has been flattened on seven occasions, making him the biggest pinata in pro football. No other passer has absorbed more sticks.

Winston might as well have been facing a firing squad instead of the Browns, it was that one-sided Saturday. He was sacked four times and pressured into throwing an interception in the 31-7 preseason loss.

"We had some bad plays last night, yes, along our offensive line," coach Lovie Smith said Sunday. "It's like that most games, though. You have some plays you'd like to have back. Good plays on their part. Looking at the overall picture, just like before when we played a lot better, you take everything in, which we will do. But that play last night, for the most part, was unacceptable for us, and we'll fix it."

Frankly, it's hard to know where to start.

Much of the focus will be on the rookies, both second-round draft picks — Donovan Smith at left tackle and Ali Marpet at right guard. Smith had one of his better games against the Browns but is a work in progress. Marpet, out of Division III Hobart (N.Y.) College, could've been wearing skates the way he was rolled backward by the Browns' Paul Kruger and Desmond Bryant. On one sack, he was pushed into Winston. On another, he was head-slapped and threw a matador block.

"Guys are going to have bad plays," Lovie Smith said. "We'll look at the overall picture for those guys. For rookie offensive linemen, we think we have two pretty good players. Are they Pro Bowl ready right now? No. But they're making progress."

Winston alluded to making some mistakes in calling the protections against the 3-4 scheme of the Browns. The Bucs' coach wasn't swallowing it.

"The problems I had were with when we knew who to block and we didn't," Lovie Smith said. "It always comes down to that. Defenses are going to have good plays at times. They may have you outnumbered. But you have a plan in place when that happens. … Part of that execution is to know who you're blocking."

Of course, bad offensive line play in Tampa Bay is as predictable as afternoon thunderstorms. This is a franchise that refused to address the position in the draft for years. From 2009-13, the Bucs used one of their 36 picks on an offensive lineman — 2009 fifth round, tackle Xavier Fulton, who tore his ACL during that preseason and never played a game for Tampa Bay.

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After taking over a couple of years ago, general manager Jason Licht cleaned house. He released guard Davin Joseph, who played last season for the Rams but is out of football. Also sent packing was left tackle Donald Penn, a starter for the Raiders. Replacing him with Bengals free agent Anthony Collins was a mistake. Collins, who signed a five-year, $30 million deal, was big hat, no cattle. He was benched the final four games last season and released. He might not be out of money, but he's out of the NFL. Center Jeremy Zuttah was traded to the Ravens for a fifth-round pick.

As Licht knows, good offensive lines are built through the draft. Smith and Marpet are going to struggle. But veteran Logan Mankins, who used to be as reliable as sunup when he played for the Patriots, is in the late December of his career and barely hanging on. Center Evan Smith hasn't yet collected many votes for the Pro Bowl. Right tackle Demar Dotson will miss another month with a knee sprain. Veteran Gosder Cherilus is a good find as his replacement, but he still is learning his way to the cafeteria.

"It just wasn't good enough," Mankins said Saturday. "Very disappointing, after last week. I thought we took a step forward, today we took one back."

Considering Winston has played the equivalent of 11/2 games in the preseason, his seven sacks would calculate to 74.6 over a full season. That's less than two sacks shy of the NFL record of 76 held by the Texans in David Carr's rookie season in 2002.

Like Winston, Carr was the No. 1 overall pick in the draft. That kind of beating ruined him. The Bucs need to hope Winston won't suffer the same fate.