The Bucs unheralded and often-criticized offensive line has turned things around for Tampa Bay with rookie Ted Larsen standing out at left guard.
Over the last five years the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have sunken a lot of resources into their offensive line. Tampa Bay spent a first-round pick on guard Davin Joseph in 2006. The same year right tackle Jeremy Trueblood was selected in the second round. A year later the team drafted guard Arron Sears in the second round. In 2008 Tampa Bay signed center Jeff Faine to the biggest contract for a center in the NFL, and drafted guard/center Jeremy Zuttah in the third round. This past year Tampa Bay signed left tackle Donald Penn to a lucrative long-term contract, and signed veteran guard Keydrick Vincent in free agency.
Despite all those resources the Bucs offensive line has been keyed by rookie fill in guard Ted Larsen and veteran tackle backup James Lee. Faine just returned to the lineup against Carolina after missing four games. While he was out, Zuttah came off the bench to do a quality job at center.
“The thing I see on tape is a nasty demeanor,” said head coach Raheem Morris. “That’s what you like from offensive linemen, and what we’ve talked about since we’ve been here. We’ve been talking about it and harping on it and thought we had it when we first got here, and now it is starting to show up a little bit. Those guys are playing hard. Everybody doesn’t win every individual battle every single time but what you do see is when people have a chance to finish off people and when people have the chance to finish off blocks or take advantage of a hole we’re doing it. And we’re doing it with different people. We got Larsen in there. We got Lee in there. Zuttah in there. Faine yesterday. Penn and Davin have been the consistent solid blocks up there so far this season. Those guys are playing together. They’re playing hard, and they got a code in that room they are supposed to go out and play that way and they are living up to it.”
The Buccaneers have seen a powerful ground game emerge over the last four games. Over the past month running back LeGarrette Blount has ran for 329 yards (5.1 yards per carry) and three touchdowns. In that time Vincent was released after Larsen filled in well for Vincent while the veteran dealt with a back injury. Lee has played the last three games at right tackle after Trueblood was sidelined with an MCL sprain. Many expected Zuttah to re-take the starting job at left guard once Faine was recovered from a quad injury. Zuttah was the starter at left guard in 2009, but the standout performance by Larsen kept the rookie from North Carolina State in the starting lineup when Faine returned yesterday to play the Carolina Panthers.
“I just try and come in and focus on getting better every day and keep improving,” said Larsen. “I feel comfortable. There are still things I can learn. There are guys that have played five or six years who still have stuff to learn.”
Against Carolina on Sunday the Buccaneers ran for 186 yards on 30 carries, an average of 6.2 yards per carry and two rushing touchdowns. Offensive coordinator Greg Olson has been very pleased with the way the offensive line is performing, and believes that offensive line coach Pete Mangurian has gotten improved production from the unit.
“The thing to me that has been encouraging is the different players playing different positions and how much movement we’ve had on the offensive line,” said Olson. “A lot of times that is a difficult transition when you are switching centers and switching guards, and the communication that goes on up front between the those players. To me that has been the biggest challenge to overcome with those guys up front. To be honest with you, we are pleasantly surprised because of the injuries that we’ve had that they’ve been able to go in there and continue to get better each week. As Raheem spoke to earlier, that has kind of been the key right now to our team. They continue to get better each week. Our young players have continued to get better. We felt like Ted Larsen got better here in his third start and hasn’t taken a step backwards. We felt like James Lee has been better every week.
“That has been the encouraging part of it. The growth of our young players and inexperienced players. To me that is what this team has been all about. Kind of staying on that upward curve and track right now as we move forward. I’m sure that if you checked with Pete [Mangurian] that the grades have increased as the season has gone with all the production that we’ve had.”
The local product Larsen grew up a Buccaneers fan. Larsen was a center at North Carolina State and was drafted by the New England Patriots in the sixth round of the 2010 NFL Draft. The Patriots cut Larsen at the end of the preseason and tried to sign him to their practice squad, but the 6-foot-2, 304-pound Larsen was signed by the Buccaneers.
“He’s tough. He’s also pretty athletic when you watch him,” said Olson. “He’s got good movement skills. He pulls very well, and he’s a powerful player. I just like his overall demeanor.”
Larsen has equally impressed his head coach.
“You got to be really pleased with Larsen,” said Morris. “He’s playing really hard and really physical. He’s kind of one of those hidden gems that we’ve been lucky enough to get and he’s been playing great football for us.”
Larsen made a key block pulling to hit a linebacker on Cadillac Williams' 45-yard touchdown run to cap-off the Bucs 31-16 victory over the Panthers. While Larsen has performed well, he will have to maintain his production in order to stay in the lineup. Morris said that Lee and Trueblood would compete at right tackle for playing time while Zuttah would continue to compete at guard and center.
“You always got to let those guys compete every week,” said Morris. “We‘ll have competition right tackle, we’ll have competition at left guard, we’ll have competition at right guard, center. The way those guys are playing up front, is the way you like it. What they’ve been able to do when they go out there and are put in situations is they’ve been able to go out there and perform. We’ll let guys compete, and we’ll let guys go out there and play as hard as they can. At the end of the day we got to play the best guys at those positions in order to give us a chance to win and protect five.”
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