Once a giant source of frustration, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers offensive line has exceeded expectations halfway through the 2015 regular season.
Despite plugging in two rookies, enduring a lengthy injury to its most senior member and making a change at center, the unit has helped Tampa Bay elevate its offensive game.
The Bucs enter Sunday’s home date against Dallas tied for 14th in total offense (357.2 yards per game), in a four-way tie for 10th in sacks allowed (14) and seventh in rushing (131.9 yards).
And while finishing drives off with touchdowns rather than field goal attempts continues to bedevil the Bucs, at least they’re retaining possession for more than a handful of plays. The offensive line’s ability to keep quarterback Jameis Winston upright and open lanes for running backs Doug Martin and Charles Sims has led to the Bucs punting far less than they did a season ago.
Tampa Bay and punter Jacob Schum have booted away possession only 26 times all year, less than every other NFL team other than Arizona (26) and New England (25). That’s an average of 3.3 times per game, putting the Bucs on pace to line up for 52 punts this season. In 2014, Tampa Bay punted 78 total times, or nearly five per game.
So far the offensive line has been able to weather storms and remain a source of stability to keep the ball moving. That will get tested again as rookie right guard Ali Marpet deals with an ankle injury that removed him from action Sunday against New York, and right tackle Demar Dotson returns from an injured knee.
Former starting center Evan Smith filled in capably for Marpet at right guard against the Giants and, based on Marpet’s availability, it’s uncertain who will get the nod when Dallas comes to town. More uncertainty surrounds Dotson, the team’s longest-tenured player, and whether he’ll retake his spot at right tackle over replacement Gosder Cherilus. The team elevated Dotson back to the active roster Monday.
“Ali Marpet’s ankle is getting better,” head coach Lovie Smith said during his Monday press conference. “We’ll kind of see how it plays out the rest of the week. Bradley McDougald is in the concussion protocol. [Those are] two players, of course, that we need [and have] done a lot for us, so hopefully they’ll be good to go.”
While offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter has been quoted during press conferences this year that players shouldn’t lose their starting roles because of injury, Lovie Smith has aired contradictory viewpoints. Just because Dotson is back on the active roster also doesn’t mean he’ll be out on the Raymond James Stadium field this weekend (See: tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins).
The chances of Lovie Smith revealing Tampa Bay’s starter at right tackle are about as good as the stands being without any silver and blue Sunday, but the coach did say Dotson is progressing and recovering well.
“Yes I think it is easier for them,” Smith said of offensive linemen getting back into playing condition after injuries compared to guys at other positions. “What have we seen from Demar? We knew when he would be eligible to start practicing, to come back. [There] haven’t been any setbacks or anything like that. Demar Dotson is a good football player and in time he’ll get back out there – exactly when that is we still don’t know, but I think it is easier for a lineman to come back more so than some of the skill players.”
Cherilus, Marpet and rookie left tackle Donovan Smith have started all eight games this season. Veteran left guard Logan Mankins missed only the Week 5 home win against Jacksonville and Hawley has started at center ever since Evan Smith went down Week 2 in New Orleans.