Last week was not the offensive line Bucs fans have been growing fond of through 10 previous games this season.
Quarterback Jameis Winston constantly scrambling away from collapsing pockets and getting taken down a season-high five times contributed Tampa Bay’s lackluster performance and second-half goose egg on the scoreboard. Four of those five sacks of Winston came after halftime as Indianapolis pass rushers began teeing off with the Bucs all but abandoning the run.
“I probably should’ve ran the ball more after those first two series,” offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter said this week. “It wasn’t so much that they brought more pressure, although with that said, give the Colts credit. They hurt us with some single rushes. We did not handle it as well as we have been handling it and it wasn’t just one guy. It was crazy. When we had protection issues, we had guys wide open. When we had good protection we either missed a throw, dropped a throw – it was always something. We haven’t had a whole lot of that. We’ve been able to put it together pretty well and we just got out of whack.”
Although the unit had performed well in two previous games leading up to last Sunday with former starting center Evan Smith taking over at right guard, the team is anticipating injured rookie Ali Marpet’s return. Marpet started the first eight games before getting sidelined with an ankle injury.
“He’s doing more and more,” head coach Lovie Smith said of Marpet’s status Thursday, a day prior to the rookie being listed as probable on the team’s final injury report. “Yesterday he looked pretty good. He looked better today. He’s been out a while. He’s a tough guy and all that. We need everybody of course right now so hopefully he’ll be able to.”
When asked again about his status this week, Marpet said he’s more than ready to rejoin his teammates on the line. “I want to play. Watching sucks, so I’m going to do everything I can to get back out there.”
Fellow rookie left tackle Donovan Smith, also a starter since Week 1, had arguably his roughest day as a pro in Indy while trying to deal with Colts edge rushers but Koetters made sure to spread the blame around.
“I think Donovan is just a reflection of a lot of guys on offense,” Koetter said. “You could’ve said any one of seven or eight guys and I’d give you the same answer. We’ve missed opportunities, Donovan had his moments, I had my moments. Go down the line, this guy, this guy, this guy, we all missed opportunities in that game.
“Donovan went up against a couple pretty good rushers. He actually did a pretty good job on [Robert Mathis], who has 125 sacks in his career [or] something like that. He struggled a little bit more against [Trent] Cole. Why? I don’t know the answer to that. I really wouldn’t say struggled, we just didn’t play the way we’ve been playing.”
Whether it’s Evan Smith or Marpet at right guard Sunday, the Bucs will be facing an Atlanta defense that’s totaled just 12 sacks in 11 games. The Falcons are tied currently with the New York Giants for fewest in the NFL.
Atlanta got to Winston twice during Tampa Bay’s 23-20 overtime win five weeks ago and the Bucs offense was limited to 290 total yards, its second-lowest output of the season. To get back on track, starting center and former Falcon Joe Hawley said this is a gut-check kind of game for the entire offensive line.
“Obviously Atlanta is a team we know very well in the division and we’ve already played them,” he said this week. “I think it’s going to be more of an attitude and effort type of game. The game plan is going to pretty much be the same, little tweaks here and there. But we’re just going to go out there and see who wants it more.”