Ryan Griffin had one mission when he got back to the visitors' locker room after the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 26-24 win over the Miami Dolphins on Thursday night. He made a point to find each and every offensive linemen who appeared in the game in order to express his gratitude.
For those counting, that was 11 large men that Griffin had to locate. For a regular-season contest, that would be an unusually high number of O-Linemen to see action, given that most teams only keep seven of them active on game day. For a preseason game, especially the first preseason game, that's an unusually low number, as teams will carry upward of 15 linemen in training camp and will need them all after the starters exit early.
"I've got to give a shout out to the offensive line," said Griffin after he engineered a final two-minute drive that ended in a game-winning field goal by Chandler Catanzaro. "Those guys played a ton of reps, especially for the first preseason game. That's very uncommon. Those guys went in there and really grinded it out."
The Buccaneers actually had 17 offensive linemen among their 91 rostered players heading into Thursday, but four of those – tackles Demar Dotson, Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer – were unavailable for the game due to injuries. Another one, Jarron Jones, was just signed on Tuesday and didn't have adequate prep time to be thrown into game action. One other, tackle Givens Price, did not make it into the rotation against the Dolphins.
The result was a starting offensive line that was only 60% intact, with Evan Smith stepping in at right guard and first-year man Brad Seaton taking over at right tackle. Smith is a valued and versatile ninth-year veteran who has started at right guard for the Buccaneers before, but he had taken very few reps there during the first two weeks of training camp. Seaton has yet to take an NFL regular-season snap and he was the fourth player the Bucs put at first-team right tackle in the last two weeks, after Dotson, Wester and Gardner.
Much of that starting line departed after the first quarter, as is the usual approach in the first week of the preseason, though Seaton and Smith were pressed into additional action. And quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Jameis Winston made it through the first half with only one sack combined. Fitzpatrick and Winston generally had plenty of time to throw, and that showed in their combined 17-of-21 marksmanship.
Griffin took all the QB snaps in the second half and completed 20 of his 26 passes. He was not sacked once in his 26 drop-backs, and like the two passers who preceded him, he threw zero interceptions as he was never hurried into a bad throw. On a night when the running game was only somewhat effective (73 yards, 2.6 per carry), Tampa Bay's three quarterbacks still completed 78.7% of their passes and had a combined 103.5 passer rating. When asked what was the common thread in the strong overall performances of all three QBs, Winston quickly pointed to the offensive line.
"I’m just happy…we were low on the offensive line," said Winston. "Those guys came out here and were very resilient."
After the starting five of Seaton, Smith, Ryan Jensen, Ali Marpet and Donovan Smith, six reserves got into the game, and not just for brief cameos. Those six, some of whom lined up at multiple positions during the night, were Alex Cappa, Mike Liedtke, Ruben Holcomb, Adam Gettis, Jerry Ugokwe and Caleb Benenoch. Only Benenoch has anywhere near significant starting experience in the NFL, having taken over at right tackle for the final third of last season. Cappa and Holcomb are rookies, Liedtke has played in one regular-season game and Ugokwe none. Gettis has seen action in 17 regular-season games, but none since 2016, and he has just one start.
Liedtke was one of those reserves who lined up at multiple spots as the Bucs coaches tried different combinations to keep from overworking anyone. He has mostly taken snaps on the interior line in camp practices but he was at left tackle in crunch time as Griffin directed a pair of scoring drives.
"Mike did a great job playing left tackle," said an appreciative Evan Smith. "Like I said, we had a lot of guys down, shuffled a lot of guys, but I thought overall we did a good job tonight.”
Of course, many of those reserves were playing against Miami and second-third stringers, which helped level the playing field a bit. Still, the Dolphins have some quality veteran pass-rushing depth, especially on the edges with the likes of Robert Quinn Charles Harris and Andre Branch (Cameron Wake and William Harris did not play). Smith gave Offensive Line Coach George Warhop and Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken credit for getting the younger linemen up to speed and urging them to fight for 60 minutes.
"I thought they played hard," said Smith. "I know we had a few guys out there that have only been here for a short while. Plug and play, but that’s the name of the game. You get paid to do a job. Guys went out there and I though they competed their butts off. We did a fantastic job."
In camp, the Buccaneers have been gradually increasing the workload for Dotson, who had knee surgery in the spring, and he is expected to be in his usual spot at right tackle for the regular season. None of the other injuries sustained by linemen currently on the roster are considered long-term issues, so the Bucs may be back to the usual level of depth soon. But there's no question that the thinned-out offensive front was the single biggest concern headed into Thursday's opener, so it's both surprising and encouraging that the same unit ended up being one of the team's greatest strengths in a narrow win.
"Oh yes, it was good," said Donovan Smith. "It’s the next guy up mentality. Like I said, the guys stepped up and played great and that’s the way it goes. A guy goes down you know you have to fill in, any time that happens it’s good."