Left tackle Donald Penn has been waiting for his opportunity to show what he can do with significant playing time. The wait is over for Penn, who will start in place of left tackle Luke Petitgout, who left Sunday’s 20-7 victory over the Carolina Panthers with a knee injury.
Petitgout will have season-ending surgery to repair the damage done to his right knee, which moves Penn into the starting lineup this week on the road against the Indianapolis Colts. Left tackle Anthony Davis, who has been inactive for the first four games of the season, could also see some playing time.
“I always watched that [former Giants running back] Tiki Barber commercial when he’s driving the [Cadillac] Escalade and he’s talking about his opportunity,” Penn said. “Every time I saw that commercial I kept thinking I’m just waiting on mine, I’m going to get mine one of these days. You just have to do it because you only get one. Not too many people get more than one opportunity. So just like that commercial said, I’ve been waiting on my opportunity and I’m just trying to grasp it.”
Penn filled in for Petitgout against the Panthers after the ninth-year veteran went out early in the second quarter. Penn did a good job in pass blocking against Carolina defensive end Mike Rucker and showed the tenacity in the running game that was seen during the preseason.
But as head coach Jon Gruden emphatically stated on Monday, experience in the preseason doesn’t mean much in the regular season, especially with Colts defensive ends Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis waiting in the wings.
“A lot of guys have experience in the preseason, but experience against Dwight Freeney on the road is a little different experience,” Gruden said. “He and Mathis I’m sure will be eagerly awaiting our young left tackle. We think he’s shown promise. He’s an athletic guy, he’s worked his butt off and it’s a credit to [offenisve line coach] Bill Muir, [senior assistant offensive line coach] Aaron Kromer and Donald Penn. This is a great opportunity for him and we will see what happens.”
It didn’t take Penn long to turn his thoughts to Freeney and begin trying to figure out how to contain the three-time Pro Bowler.
“It’s a big matchup and he’s a great player,” Penn said. “I’ve been thinking about that ever since the game got over. It’s my first game, he’s a great player and I’m going to see what I’m made of and see where I’m at so this will be a big test for me.”
Penn was signed by the Minnesota Vikings as an undrafted free-agent out of Utah State in 2006 and was on their practice squad before being picked up by Tampa Bay in Week 4 last year. The second-year player was inactive for the final 13 games of last season, but made some noise during training camp and in the preseason.
He impressed the coaching staff with his mentality on the field and versatility, being able to play both right and left tackle. Penn played left tackle in Minnesota and at Utah State, but played right tackle at times during the preseason.
“I’m more comfortable on the left side because I’ve played there most of my career, but the right tackle spot is a spot that I can play if they need me over there,” Penn said. “The left tackle spot is where I’m more comfortable though.”
With a right-handed quarterback in Jeff Garcia, the left tackle position is crucial in the success of the passing game because that is the quarterback’s blind side. Petitgout has done a good job of keeping opposing pass rushers off of Garcia’s back and Penn will need to do the same so the Bucs can continue to consistently put points on the board.
Despite losing a veteran in Petitgout for the season, Gruden is confident in Penn’s ability to get the job done.
“You lose a lot of skill. Watching Philadelphia yesterday (Eagles gave up 12 sacks against the New York Giants) play without their left tackle and their running back, it’s not an easy thing to overcome,” Gruden said. “Experience and production at those positions is something that every offense relies on. We are confident in Donald Penn, we’re confident he can go. He’s done a good job for us and we think that Anthony Davis has proven in the past that he can play the position.”
The loss of Petitgout is a big blow to the offensive line, but Penn’s improved play can go a long way in softening the impact of this injury. Even though Petitgout is out for the season, he still remains a vocal contributor for the offensive line, especially with Penn.
“Luke has been talking to me already, trying to get me ready,” Penn said. “He’s told me to make sure I’m on my "A" game.”
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