The Tampa Bay Buccaneers front office reaffirmed its commitment to the offensive line this offseason when starters Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood were awarded multiyear deals to keep last year’s successful unit together.
Come Sunday, team officials and coaches will have a quality season-opening look into just how those decisions are paying off after the Bucs tangle with second-year defensive tackle Ndamukong Suh and a reinvigorated Detroit Lions team at Raymond James Stadium.
“They’re good up front from one defensive end, to the tackles and to the other side,” said Joseph, the Bucs right guard, during an open locker room session Wednesday afternoon. “They play hard as can be. It’s going to be a heck of a challenge for us.”
Not that coaches, players or fans need reminded of it anymore, but the two teams last met only nine months ago in Tampa Bay during a 23-20 overtime loss for the Bucs that ultimately ruined any hopes of the postseason. While much of both team’s personnel in the trenches remains similar to what they were during that mid-December tilt, there will be noticeable differences in matchups this time around.
For the Bucs, Joseph and center Jeff Faine were down with injuries and replaced by Derek Hardman and Jeremy Zuttah, respectively. Trueblood, while active for the game, played in a backup role at right tackle behind then-starter James Lee.
Detroit’s expected front four will be LDE Cliff Avril [6-foot-3, 260-pounds], Suh [6-foot-4, 307-pounds], DT Corey Williams [6-foot-4, 320-pounds] and RDE Kyle Vanden Bosch [6-foot-4, 278-pounds]. All were on the field in December at Raymond James except for Vanden Bosch, whose season ended after starting in 11 games for the Lions.
Bucs offensive coordinator Greg Olson touched on those different looks during a press conference yesterday.
“This is a very good defensive line with Suh, Avril, Williams and Vanden Bosch,” Olson said. “It was a challenge a year ago and we’ll have that similar challenge this season. We’ve got some new guys in there, three new faces for them. But again, [our offensive linemen] have seen how well Detroit’s defensive line has played throughout the preseason and they’ve had a chance to study them as well from last season, so it’s a big challenge for the offensive line, but I think they’re looking forward to it.”
Despite the hype surrounding Suh, though, Detroit was statistically a lower-tier defense overall in 2010 outside of getting to the passer. The Lions finished 21st in total yards allowed per game [343.6], 24th in rushing yards [124.9] and 16th in passing yards [218.6]. For what it’s worth, Detroit did realize marked improvements in all three categories this preseason, but starters only see limited playing time and the stats cannot be held as a true reflection of what’s to come. The Lions did appear to roll their penchant for sacking the quarterback over from last year during their 4-0 preseason and the defensive line produced seven of the team’s eight, with four coming from starters. The Lions’ 44 sacks in 2010 ranked sixth in the league and 10 of those were thanks to the reigning NFL Rookie of the Year, Suh. Bucs quarterback Josh Freeman did not feel the wrath of any of those 10 takedowns last season, but Suh did register two quarterback hits.
With Hardman, a rookie at the time, playing in place of Joseph, head coach Raheem Morris said Tuesday that perhaps Suh’s greatest affect on last year’s outcome was the amount of redirected attention he commanded up front. “Hardman did play guard that day. We gave him some help, no doubt about that. We have some really good coaches that are going to put our guys in a premium position to go out there and win. And when we don’t we’re very accountable for it. With Suh, he did a great job of causing that kind of attention in order to get other people off, so they won the football game.”
Heading into his first competition with Suh, Joseph said he recognizes the former first-round pick’s talents and physicality, but reminded those listening that he goes up against a skilled and powerful former first-rounder himself each afternoon in practice.
“Yeah, but I’ve got a guy like [Gerald] McCoy everyday, so I’m okay. I’m good.”
Along with going head-to-head with McCoy as quality preparation for Suh, Joseph added that Detroit and its base 4-3 look comes in with a defensive approach similar to what the Buccaneers run. “They play a defense that’s similar to ours, so we get to see that on a daily basis. They have some good guys up front and we have some really good guys here that are great competition for us on a day-to-day basis. We feel confident that we’re prepared.”
Members of the media on Tuesday were given access to Suh via teleconference and the second-year tackle said he, too, is anticipating the battle on the line with the Bucs as well as his initial matchup with Joseph. “I think it’s a well-schooled offensive line. They’re finally healthy and back to where they were at the beginning of last season. I’m really excited and looking forward to going against Davin Joseph. He seems like a very physical, strong guard and it will definitely be a good challenge for myself and I feel I’m up for it.”
Faine, who will also be tasked with containing Suh for the first time, credited the former Nebraska Cornhusker for his rapid development as a pro. “If you take the quarterback position out of it, I really think offensive and defensive line is the toughest position to transition to coming from college to the pros, especially the way the college game is being run. There’s a lot of spread and a lot of shotgun. It’s basically schemes that are getting the wins. It’s challenging and even more credit needs to go Suh’s way for the way he played last year and the way he dominated last year. It looked like exactly what he did in college is exactly what he did in the pros. His transition was flawless. He’s going to be a great challenge for us. We’re looking forward to it.”
Suh, not one to typically waiver in self-confidence while providing sound bites, said he expects the transition from year one to year two in the NFL to be just as smooth as it was going from Nebraska to Detroit last season. No matter how lofty outside expectations may be after his breakout rookie campaign, Suh said he embraces them all.
“I definitely welcome expectations. I think a lot of expectations that people have on me are a little bit lower than what I have for myself, so it’s really not that big of a deal. A prime example of that was people thinking it [would be] great for me getting eight sacks in my rookie season and then I ended up getting 10 and being in double digits. I saw that as not being an issue for myself to be able to do that because I did it in college. The guys I played in the Big 12, a lot of those guys are in the NFL right now.”
In terms of pass protection, the Bucs offensive line will have its hands full dealing with Suh, Avril, Williams and Vanden Bosch up front. The four of them combined for 24.5 of the Lions’ 44 sacks last season. While Joseph said keeping Freeman’s jersey clean is certainly a priority, equal emphasis is being placed on creating lanes for Tampa Bay running backs.
“We need to have success in the running game, we need to. With backs like LeGarrette [Blount] and Earnest [Graham], all they need is a little bit. Of course, it’s going to be a four quarter game. It might not be something where you’ll see a whole lot of results in the first and second quarter, but as the game goes on hopefully we’ll be able to wear them out and get some bigger gains.”
Conceding that there may be a lack of early cannon firings brought on by a Bucs offense that’s now notorious for not scoring quickly isn’t likely to appease many Tampa Bay fans hoping to see an end to the team’s 54-game streak of scoring seven or fewer points in the first quarter. But in preparing for Week 1 and the Lions, the only stat Joseph said he’s truly concerned with is the one that’s decided by the final whistle.
"Opening day's always special. You always want to start it off right, especially with a home game going up against an opponent that we just about play every year. We want to do well and they're a good team on both sides of the ball. They're not the old Detroit Lions that we've known from a couple years ago. They're a brand new team and it's a heck of a challenge."