“Next man up” is a phrase often used by coaches and players around One Buccaneer Place when referencing the need for every active-roster player being ready to step in and execute their role at any given moment.
Heading into the regular season’s fourth week, it’s been more like “next challenge up” for the Tampa Bay offensive line. After having to get a handle on the likes of Detroit’s Ndamukong Suh and Kyle Vanden Bosch, Minnesota’s Jared Allen and Atlanta’s John Abraham, the Bucs O-line gets no down time Monday night when welcoming the Indianapolis Colts duo of Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis into Raymond James Stadium.
“I don’t know if you can match up with Freeney and Mathis by yourself,” said head coach Raheem Morris on Wednesday afternoon. “That would be crazy for us to go out there and say we’re going to do that consistently and win the football game. Those two guys are dominant pass rushers. They can absolutely take over games.”
Predominately responsible for dealing with Indianapolis’s bookends on the defensive line will be left tackle Donald Penn, across from Freeney, and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood, opposite Mathis.
“We’ve got some good tackles ourselves,” Morris said. “We’ve got Donald Penn, we’ve got Trueblood and I’ve got a lot of confidence in those r be ready to give them help, better be ready to do different things to keep [Freeney and Mathis] from ruining the football game.”
Penn and Trueblood, both in their sixth NFL seasons, have one game of previous experience playing against the highly regarded tandem that has collected a combined 173 career sacks. That was during the teams’ last meeting in Week 5 of 2007 at the now-demolished RCA Dome in Indianapolis, a game won by the Colts, 33-14.
Much has changed personnel-wise for both teams since that Oct. 7th afternoon, but the Penn-Freeney and Trueblood-Mathis assignments will be consistent. Both Bucs linemen spoke about specific challenges the defensive ends present on game day.
“It was a while ago, but I remember how good he was,” Penn said of Freeney. “I definitely remember that. That was back then. It’s a long time ago. But the performance he put on Sunday night makes you say, ‘Ooh and aah.’ I remember watching it and rewinding it. He’s a great player. I’ll study him like I’ve been doing all week and we’ll see what happens.”
Penn was referencing Freeney’s dominating performance during Indianapolis’s 23-20 home loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers last Sunday night. The 6-foot-1, 268-pound 10-year veteran recorded two sacks for a net loss of 20 yards, three total quarterback hurries, four combined tackles and forced a fumble.
“Freeney cuts like a receiver or a DB,” Penn continued. “Some of those guys can’t move like that, but he’s quick and he moves like a DB or a linebacker. You’re not supposed to be that fast and that big. He has a nice little arsenal – a nice spin move and a nice bull rush. He definitely has speed. He’s an all-around player.”
Trueblood’s Monday night assignment also sacked Steelers quarterback Ben Roethlisberger once, posted two total quarterback hurries. Mathis’s second-quarter sack resulted in a fumble that he recovered.
“He’s a good player,” Trueblood said of the ninth-year pro out of Alabama A&M. “I’ve gone up against him before. I know what he brings to the table. He’s a very talented defensive end, but we go against talented guys in the NFL every week, so it’s nothing new.”
“He’s played in the NFL because he’s a lot stronger than you think he is,” Trueblood said. Mathis is slightly taller but leaner than Freeney, measuring up at 6-foot-2, 245-pounds. “He’s not a very big guy, but he’s pretty powerful. He’s strong at the point of attack and plays the run fine. He’s not a finesse player by any stretch of the imagination. He’s a talented player and I look forward to the challenge.”
Freeney [three] and Mathis [two] are responsible for all five of the Colts’ sacks this season. The only blemish on Penn and Trueblood’s collective offensive-tackle resume has been Vanden Bosch beating Penn for a takedown of quarterback Josh Freeman in the season-opening loss to Detroit. As a team, Tampa Bay has only allowed Freeman to hit the turf four times.
Beyond Freeney and Mathis, Morris acknowledged the Colts’ depth at the defensive end position.
“Now they’ve got Jamaal Anderson there who was a first-round pick we’re very familiar with that came from Atlanta. They’ve got [Jerry] Hughes there, who was a standout player in college [Texas Christian] who’s coming on, and all those other guys there … [Tyler] Brayton. They’ve got some really good ends, some really good defensive players.”
Anderson, Hughes and Brayton have combined for eight tackles this season. Anderson, picked up this past offseason after spending his first four years in Atlanta, scooped up a loose ball in the second quarter against Pittsburgh and returned it 47 yards for a touchdown.
Aside from the Freeney and Mathis sacks and Anderson’s splash play last Sunday, though, the Indianapolis team defense has been relatively pedestrian during its 0-3 start. The Colts are allowing 365 total yards per game, with 113.3 coming on the ground and 251.7 through the air.
Indianapolis’s slow overall beginning to 2011 isn’t reason for the Bucs to take Monday night lightly, Penn said. It was only two seasons ago that Tampa Bay was struggling to notch W’s itself and he remembers the feeling.
“We’ve been a team like this before, so I know how hungry they are going to be,” Penn said. “It’s going to be in prime time, so they are going to bring their ‘A’ game. We’re going to get their best game. I remember being there when you are crawling and you want to win so bad. That brings out the best in you. We’re going to get their best.”
The sixth-year left tackle out of Utah State added that while the individual matchup issues raised by Freeney and Mathis are certainly being addressed this week, they’re not the pervasive focus. Monday night’s game is the next on the schedule and it’s being treated as such while the entire offensive line attempts to build upon its recent successes.
“We’re taking it like a normal week,” Penn said. “We’re staying focused. It’s a big game, but it’s the next game. That’s how we’ve been taking it. That’s been our mentality.”
Even though the Tampa Bay offense showed positive signs of turning a corner during last Sunday’s win over Atlanta, aspects remain to be improved. The Bucs effectively controlled the clock (35:52 to 24:08), established and stuck with their running game (115 yards on 36 attempts), did not allow a single sack and imposed their will upon Atlanta while executing the four-minute offense to assure victory.
“We still have a lot of work to do, but we were able to control the ball and that helped us out,” Penn said. “Our defense played great and helped us. We still have a lot of work to do. It’s not where we want, but we’ll take the win. It’s still a work in progress.”
One less-than-impressive area that Penn cited was Tampa Bay’s ability to turn red-zone opportunities into touchdowns rather than Connor Barth field goals or turnovers. The Bucs found themselves inside the Falcons’ 20-yard line four times Sunday and came away with one touchdown, two field goals and one interception.
"You can't measure anything on one win," he said. "We have to stay consistent. We have a lot of stuff we can work on. We have to turn those three points in the red zone into seven. We're going to take that win and try and build on it."