The Tampa Bay Buccaneers thought they would be starting two rookies on the offensive line early in the 2015 season. They just didn't know they'd have to be working on so many contingency plans around those two young blockers.
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Left tackle Donovan Smith and right guard Ali Marpet, the Buccaneers' two second-round picks in April's draft, will start for the fifth straight game on Sunday against the Jacksonville Jaguars and will look to continue their steady adaptation to the professional game. They'll do it, however, without the veteran influence of usual starting left guard Logan Mankins, who suffered a groin injury in practice on Wednesday and will not suit up for Sunday's game.
Tampa Bay's front line was already operating without its anticipated right tackle, preseason injury victim Demar Dotson, and has not had the services of starting center Evan Smith the past three weeks. Gosder Cherilus and Joe Hawley have stepped in for those two, respectively, and now second-year man Kevin Pamphile will pick up where Mankins has left off.
Even with two rookies in the lineup and Dotson and Smith being unavailable, the offensive line has been a mild bright spot for the 1-3 Buccaneers, particularly over the past two weeks. The team hopes Pamphile can help that remain true in Week Five.
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"It's critical, but injuries are part of it so you've got to be able to adjust," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "Kevin has played a lot of ball for us, Joe has played a few games for us now so we feel pretty good about the group we're going with."
The Buccaneers left Houston in Week Three without allowing a sack to J.J. Watt and company, and they were able to rack up 411 yards of offense last week, with a strong running game and just two takedowns of rookie QB Jameis Winston. Unfortunately, turnovers have been a deciding factor for the Buccaneers in their three losses, and not in a good way. Seeking their first home win of 2015, the Bucs know they have to rewrite that script on Sunday.
"Everybody that has control the ball has to concentrate a lot harder," said Smith. "It is about ball security. Turnover ratio normally dictates who wins a football game. We can't get ourselves in a hole early. These are things we're preaching this week and hopefully we'll see them Sunday."
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With a rookie under center and an offensive line in flux, the Buccaneers will try to lean on their steadiest veterans on offense, and no one fits that bill better than wide receiver Vincent Jackson. Jackson is coming off a 10-catch, 147-yard effort against the Panthers last Sunday, and he'll likely be heavily involved in the game plan this Sunday, as well.
Photos from the Bucs victory over the Jaguars, 17-16, in 1995.
"He's been an ultimate pro the entire time I've known him," said Smith of Jackson. "Off the field, in meeting rooms, when a voice needs to speak up…but as much as anything by his play. When you're in a situation like we're in, we need our best players, our "A" players, to play like that every week. Vince played that way last week."
Meanwhile the Jaguars are sure to continue feeding the ball to rookie tailback T.J. Yeldon, who ranks third in the league with his 70 carries through four games. Yeldon's solid production has helped the Jaguars ease the pressure on young passer Blake Bortles, who is making fewer mistakes in 2015 than he did during his rookie season.
"What we see is good young talent," said Smith. "Blake Bortles is mobile in the pocket, can make all the throws, is making good decisions. T.J. Yeldon, same thing. He can make you miss in the open field, he can catch the ball, and he's run well between the tackles. He does know how to change direction. Even though he may be a little upright, he's getting positive yards most of the time. We'll just need to be sound in our gaps and we should be okay."
Logan Mankins and Evan Smith are two of the Buccaneers' seven inactives for Sunday's game (Demar Dotson is on injured reserve/designated for return). The other five are QB Ryan Griffin, CB Johnthan Banks, TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE Luke Stocker and WR Russell Shepard. Mankins, Smith, Banks, Seferian-Jenkins, Stocker and Shepard are out due to injury.
Jacksonville's seven inactives are WR Marqise Lee, RB Denard Robinson, S James Sample, DE Chris Smith, DT Sen'Derrick Marks, G Tyler Shatley and LB Paul Posluszny. Lee, Robinson, Marks and Posluszny are out due to injury. While Posluszny, the Jaguars' leading tackler, will miss his first game of the season due to an ankle sprain, TE Julius Thomas, the free agent acquisition from Denver, will make his regular-season debut for Jacksonville after recovering from a hand injury.
The Buccaneers take on the Jaguars on Sunday afternoon with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at Raymond James Stadium and will be broadcast by CBS and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.
To get the crowd involved you have to start out fast right away. We practiced well and we need to come out strong, playing our best ball right away, and play 60 minutes of ball. That's what we haven't done this year.