Given some time for reflection, and perhaps depending upon how the rest of the season unfolds, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 48-40 win in New Orleans on Sunday could go down as the most memorable shootout in team history. It is, after all, the only time the Buccaneers have given up 40 points in a game and won.
If it does eventually take over the top spot in that category, it would be bumping out the wild 38-35 win the Buccaneers earned over Kurt Warner and the St. Louis Rams in Week 16 of the 2000 season. And what do we, as fans, remember from that game? The top highlight has to be the game-saving and improved pitch play between Warrick Dunn and Shaun King. Some might also recall one or more of Dunn's touchdown runs, including the game-winner, or one of Keyshawn Johnson's two scoring receptions. That wasn't a particularly defensive night, but John Lynch's game-sealing interception at the end comes to mind.
Now quick, while you're reminiscing about the Bucs-Rams Monday night shootout – name the Buccaneers' starting left tackle that night.
Sunday's game in the Superdome will rightfully be remembered for Ryan Fitzpatrick's career day and the high-flying antics of DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans. A couple Peyton Barber runs stand out, and on a day that included more than 1,000 yards from scrimmage, the Buccaneers likely would not have won without two big forced fumbles, one that was returned by Justin Evans for a touchdown.
With so much attention being paid to those playmakers, it's easy to overlook another group that had itself a pretty nice afternoon on Sunday. Tampa Bay's offensive line, which underwent some very focused adjustment during the offseason, started the year off with a shutout of sorts and made all of Fitzpatrick's throws and Barber's runs possible. Those six blockers – left tackle Donovan Smith, left guard Ali Marpet, center Ryan Jensen, right guard Caleb Benenoch and right tackle Demar Dotson (with some cameo work from Evan Smith) – definitely deserve some recognition of their own.
"Our O-Line did play a nice game," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter on Monday. "To have zero sacks – even though we only attempted 28 passes, zero sacks against a team that is pretty good at rushing the passer was huge. And the way we ran the ball early, Peyton's first two touches [on the second drive] were explosive runs. We didn't run it as good in the middle of the game and maybe would have liked to run it a little bit better later, but everything starts with the O-Line."
Those zero sacks amount to the aforementioned "shutout" tossed by the O-Line. The Saints had one of the NFL's best pass-rushing crews last year, with 42 total sacks, and one of its most consistent. New Orleans recorded at least one sack in all 16 of its games in 2017, including a total of six in two outings against the Buccaneers. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay did not post a single game last year in which its quarterbacks finished without taking a single sack.
The Bucs' linemen not only kept Fitzpatrick from hitting the ground Sunday but also gave him time to launch his seemingly endless series of deep balls. The Saints were credited with just two hits on Fitzpatrick throughout the game. That's particularly impressive given that those starting five didn't get a lot of time together as a unit in the preseason. Donovan Smith missed the last two games with a knee injury and Benenoch, Marpet and Dotson also missed time with various ailments.
That gave the Bucs less time to adjust to their changes up front, which included the signing of Jensen, the former Raven who was coveted by General Manager Jason Licht nearly as much for his brawler's mentality on the field as for his obvious talents at the pivot. Jensen's arrival meant the move of Marpet to left guard after he had played two seasons at right guard and one at center. Finally, Benenoch stepped in at right guard for the departed Kevin Pamphile after finishing 2017 as the right tackle in place of an injured Dotson.
Koetter was reluctant to compare the current group to last year's offensive line, simply noting that he was pleased with what he saw on Sunday. That said, Jensen's presence clearly made a difference, and he came as advertised in terms of standing up to the Saints' defenders before and after the whistle. Jensen had no trouble flipping the switch now that the preseason is over and the game's count.
"Ryan did a really nice job," said Koetter. "The qualities that Jason saw in him that made him want to bring him here, those definitely showed up on the field yesterday. There's a good example of…the difference between preseason football and regular-season football. Ryan was a man possessed out there with the way he was finishing yesterday. He definitely set the tone."
Keeping the quarterback upright is a good start towards a winning effort. Over the last five seasons, plus Sunday's opener, the Buccaneers' winning percentage is 340 points higher (.469 versus .129) when it allows zero to two sacks than when it allows three or more. That was never going to be an easy task against the Saints' front, which in the worst of circumstances for visiting teams, is backed by a raucous Superdome in full throat.
Defensive end Cameron Jordan was the star for the Saints last year, racking up 13 sacks to earn first-team all-pro honors, but the Saints got at least two sacks from 10 different players. They were a hard group to handle. Jordan did rack up six tackles and a pass break-up on Sunday but he didn't touch Fitzpatrick. That was made possible in part because the Bucs handled that Superdome atmosphere well. Not only can the overwhelming noise make it difficult to get everyone on the same page in a shifting blocking scheme, but it can lead to penalties that put the offense in tough down-and-distance situations. That wasn't an issue on Sunday; the Buccaneers were eight of 13 on third downs in large part because 10 of those 13 tries needed six or fewer yards.
View photos of the Buccaneers' Week 1 game against the New Orleans Saints.
"Communication in that building is a very difficult thing and they put a lot of pressure on your offense with the crowd noise to be able to communicate," said Koetter. "Ryan [Fitzpatrick] did a really nice job of that with his hand signals and with his audibles and adjusting plays at the line of scrimmage. I think [Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken] said it was like eight or nine times that Ryan did something with a hand signal to change a route slightly."
Koetter knows it was his veteran quarterback who kept those lines of communication open. Still, the linemen deserve credit for getting the message and executing as required. Sunday's game will be remembered for high, arcing passes to DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans, but those came about due to a team effort and the offensive line more than pulled its own weight.
By the way, that aforementioned left tackle in the 2000 Bucs-Rams game? It was George Hegamin. Now you can include him in your reminiscing about what is now perhaps the second greatest shootout in franchise history.