The Bucs' offensive line has worked hard in training camp and produced desirable results
Sure the bombs to wide receiver Joey Galloway and the hand-offs to running back Cadillac Williams have been exciting to watch during the first few days of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers training camp, but elsewhere on the field – near an end zone, away from the crowd – there is vital, if not thrilling, work being done. It's the work of the Bucs' offensive linemen.
And that work is going well.
"I'm really, really encouraged by it," said Head Coach Jon Gruden of the early work put in by the offensive line, an admitted focal point this offseason. "It's probably been as good a first three days of training camp in terms of coming off the ball that I can remember here in Tampa. That guarantees us nothing, but there is competition. Not only that but there are good players. There are some good young players there who are working very hard."
They are right tackle Kenyatta Walker, right guard Jeb Terry, center John Wade, left guard Dan Buenning and left tackle Anthony Davis – the team's starting line from last season – along with a slew of backups including rookie guard Davin Joseph and rookie tackle Jeremy Trueblood.
Too often known by number instead of name, these 300-pound behemoths can be found in full pads these days, in the 100-degree Orlando heat, doing what they do best – colliding and absorbing collisions.
It's clear they're a different breed. They're bigger, stronger and more reticent than most of their teammates. It's no wonder they don't talk much; they aren't used to getting any glory. Heck, the term "skill position" was invented to separate everyone else on offense – the backs, receivers and tight ends – from the offensive line. Presumably, that would make offensive line an "unskilled position."
But Cadillac Williams wouldn't have gained 1,178 yards in 14 games last season without the blocking upfront. And the timing between quarterback Chris Simms and wide receiver Joey Galloway that helped the 34-year-old receiver gain 1,286 yards and score 10 touchdowns wouldn't exist without pass protection – it's hard to throw looking into the sky.
"I'm loving those guys upfront, from the starters to reserves," said Williams, a direct beneficiary of the offensive line's work. "I know it's football, and guys go down and you have to have some back-up players, guys who can step in. We got a lot of depth at offensive line. We got a lot guys out here competing, so I'm just looking forward to the outcome."
Though the injury-ravaged line played better than expected last season, it still allowed Simms to be sacked 29 times, the ninth worst in the league, and often times required blocking help from the tight ends. So when draft time came, the Bucs wasted no time picking up help, selecting Joseph and Trueblood with the team's first and second round picks, respectively.
Far from the fans' gaze, they have the all the attention they can handle from Offensive Coordinator/Offensive Line Coach Bill Muir.
"It's only two days in pads, and they've only had four practices as a pro," Muir said, commenting on the pair of rookies. "But I would say this – and it's a tribute to our scouting department: We identified these guys as not only having the ability to project them athletically, talent-wise as pros, but one of the things we liked about both of them was their maturity, football maturity, football instincts.
"They both really come from good college programs that prepare you well for pro football. I know it's an adjustment on their part, but it's an adjustment they're capable of making, and that was one of the reasons we liked them so much. We thought the transition would be maybe a little quicker with them than with some rookies."
Muir said one of the goals for the offensive line is to build on the success the unit had in helping pave the way for an effective running game last season. He often can be heard forcefully urging his linemen to stay low and explode into their blocks with short, choppy steps that allow them maximum leverage and power.
"I think our perception is that we want to be a more explosive and physical team upfront in the running game," Muir said. "That's kind of the objective of training camp – to try to develop that."
For the rookies, it's a crash course in NFL-level play, but they are responding well.
"Run-blocking is what I like to do a lot," Joseph said. "I'm still struggling to get the details down, all the small things that allow me to be a little bit quicker from point a to point b, but the basics are covered – being physical, coming off hard, staying low. That's all covered. Minor footwork is still something I'm working on. I'm also working on my 'pass pro' along with that, trying to get myself in better position on a down-to-down basis."
"I've learned a lot," Trueblood said. "My overall game has just improved, as a whole. [The pace] is fast, like it should be. It's a boys' game played by men, but these men up here are grown men. They fire off fast, so you've got to play with some speed."
Gruden reiterated that the two are continuing to make progress – something that should help solidify the unit as a whole.
"[Joseph] and Trueblood on the right side have worked hard and made tremendous improvements," Gruden said. "Once again, they're going against a great defensive team. They've had their moments where it hasn't been where we wanted, but they are getting better. They're working hard at it and they are two big guys who are gaining confidence, I think, in what they're doing."