In the past two seasons, the Bucs offense has been unable to keep their starting quarterback healthy for the entire season. The responsibility of quarterback Jeff Garcia’s health this season falls on the shoulders of the offensive line. His health is the biggest key to the success of head coach Jon Gruden’s offense in 2007.

Left tackle Luke Petitgout and right tackle Jeremy Trueblood will have their hands full this Sunday facing the New Orleans Saints’ talented defensive ends, Will Smith and Charles Grant. Smith, who was a Pro Bowl selection in 2006, recorded a career-high 10.5 sacks and had a five-game stretch where he caused at least one fumble. Grant was franchised and eventually signed during the offseason to a seven-year, $63 million deal and completes a tandem that provides a solid pass rush off the edge.

Last week against the Seattle Seahawks, defensive ends Darryl Tapp and Patrick Kerney combined for two of the five sacks recorded by Seattle’s defense. Tapp and Kerney did a good job of getting up the field and forcing Garcia into the pressure up the middle. Gruden knows all about Grant and Smith having to face them twice every season and has some ideas on how to keep them off balance.

“I think mobility is an asset and you never want to lose sight of that, but we are going to try to be able to move the pocket a little bit more than we have with him,” Gruden said. “Change the launching spots so teams can’t zero in on where he is. He doesn’t get balls batted down, and he has a creative release arm angle. So we are going to try and mix our launching spot up and certainly mix up our protections and try not to be one dimensional.”

When facing speed rushers such as Dolphins defensive end Jason Taylor or second-year Bears defensive end Mark Anderson, offensive linemen tend to let a speed rusher run himself out of the play. Smith and Grant, however, can use both speed and strength to get to the quarterback. Trueblood would rather face a speed rusher compared to a power pass rusher.

“To a certain extent, speed rushers are easier to block just because they run straight up field and take themselves right out of the play, but that was more so in college,” Trueblood said. “Now, speed rushers also are strong too so they come back inside which makes it tougher. I almost would rather go against a speed rusher than a big guy to be honest.”

Trueblood got the opportunity to face Grant and Smith twice last season, with his first NFL start coming on the road against the Saints. Because of that experience, Trueblood was able to figure out a game plan on how he wants to attack Grant or Smith with his pass protection. Unlike with Kerney, Trueblood knows about Smith and Grant’s tendencies either in the passing game or run blocking.

“It’s really nice that I played against them [Grant and Smith] twice because last week I came in here and all these guys had played against [Patrick] Kerney, but I had not,” Trueblood said. “I wasn’t nervous or anything, I was anxious to get on the film and see what he did and just see what he did with some of his pass rushes. With Grant, it’s in my head and I remember him. So that’s the best part, I don’t have to come in here and watch hours of film because I already know.”

Grant and Smith had success against the Bucs last year with both players recording two sacks apiece in 2006. Grant added 10 tackles in two games with Smith recording eight tackles against the Bucs. The Bucs did a good job of containing Smith in their first meeting in New Orleans, holding the 6-foot-3, 282-pound defensive end to only two tackles. However, Smith made up for it in the Saints 31-14 victory in Tampa as he recorded six tackles and two sacks.

Petitgout faced Smith back in 2005 during his tenure with the New York Giants, so he has an idea of what he will be facing on Sunday. Petitgout did a good job of keeping Tapp from getting around the edge and getting to Garcia from his blindside. The nine-year veteran left tackle will need to have the same performance on Sunday so the offense can get the ball into the end zone.

“He’s got both. He’s got speed and power,” Petitgout said of Smith. “He’s a big, fast, strong guy. He’s a high-motor guy. I played against him in 2005. He’s an all-around defensive end.”

Garcia knows what he’s facing with the New Orleans defense after competing against the Saints in the divisional playoffs last season with the Philadelphia Eagles. Garcia got a small taste of what Grant and Smith can do. Garcia, however, was effective against the Saints going 15-for-30 for 240 yards and one touchdown. Garcia was sacked once, but he also managed the game and didn’t turn the ball over.

Garcia has noticed that the Saints like to collapse the pocket on the quarterback so he will be ready to adjust to the New Orleans defense on Sunday.

“I think they are going to prepare knowing that we like to move the quarterback so I don’t anticipate that it will be any easier than any other game,” Garcia said. “I think it’s one of those things were they do have good defensive ends and they have good inside guys that try to force the pocket back and collapse the pocket. So it’s just a matter of finding ways to execute and when there is room to move I will make due with what I can do.”

Gruden is looking for Petitgout and Trueblood to contain the New Orleans’ book ends so he can exploit the Saints secondary. The Bucs offense has seen a lot of zone coverage in the preseason and against Seattle, so Gruden wants to get as many wide receivers into the secondary as possible.

However, if Trueblood or Petitgout struggle to keep Garcia clean from the edge rush of Smith or Grant, then the Bucs must keep a tight end in to help or use a running back to get a chip block. Gruden wants his tight ends or running backs inflicting damage in the Saints secondary, not helping to block defensive linemen.

“We are hoping [Luke] Petitgout and [Jeremy] Trueblood, who protected pretty good last week, can hold their own,” Gruden said. “We aren’t going to go crazy here; we have to let our guys out in some routes. We aren’t seeing a lot of man-to-man; very few teams have played man against us. With that in mind, you better get four and five eligibles out or you aren’t going to be able to throw the football.”

One of the keys for the Bucs offense in keeping Smith or Grant off of Garcia is to stay out of the third-and-long situations. If the Bucs can force the Saints to respect the running game on first and second downs, it will be more difficult for Smith or Grant to pin their ears back and come on a straight pass rush on third down. Garcia just needs some time in the pocket to pick apart an average New Orleans secondary.

“I think that in the case of this game, and it’s not like any other, you are working to try to unsettle that quarterback position,” New Orleans head coach Sean Payton said. “When the quarterback has time to read and allows routes to develop – I’m talking about Jeff or Drew – the chances of them being successful on a given pass play go way up. So part of that starts with first and second down and how efficient you are and how effective you are on creating third and long scenarios. So you want to have balance, I’m sure both offenses want to have balance, but those early downs are important in creating that. I think when you look at games at some point the defensive line and offensive line contribute greatly to the outcome of each game.”

In Sunday’s contest, the Bucs offensive line, more importantly the play of Petitgout and Trueblood, will determine whether Tampa Bay has that winning feeling again or is staring down the barrel of a 0-2 record.

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