Todd Monken knows that for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offense to produce at the level needed to get the team back into the playoffs, it is going to need more consistent domination of the line of scrimmage. The Buccaneers' offensive coordinator put it in even simpler terms last week: "If you're not good up there then you absolutely cannot function."
Tampa Bay's offense did function to some degree during a disappointing 2017 season, finishing ninth in the NFL in net yards per game (363.5), fourth in net passing yards per game (272.9), second in first downs (352) and fourth in third-down conversion rate (43.4). But as Monken also said last week, when you're pitting some of those numbers against poor performance in such areas as red zone efficiency and turnovers, "The rest of it just makes you feel better."
The Buccaneers do have a short list of per-game offensive goals they feel they need to achieve in order to win consistently. One of those is 125 rushing yards per game. Tampa Bay's offense missed that mark by a wide margin in 2017, averaging just 90.6 yards per game to rank 27th in the NFL. The Buccaneers didn't win up front often enough last year, on either side of the ball, and that heavily influenced their 2018 offseason priorities. The defensive line got the more massive overhaul but the offensive line got some new pieces as well. Free agency brought former Baltimore center Ryan Jensen, who will take over at the pivot, pushing Ali Marpet to left guard. The draft delivered guard Alex Cappa, who could factor into the competition at right guard.
New additions should help the ground game, but according to Offensive Line Coach George Warhop, it's going to take a mental adjustment that will really turn things around.
Photos from the Buccaneers' OTA practice on May 22.
"Last year, to be honest, I was disappointed in how we ran the ball," said Warhop. "I was disappointed in our mental approach to how we were going to run the ball. I thought, really the last eight games, starting with the Jets, we started to turn the corner in our mentality about how we wanted to go about our business, and I thought that helped us. So we just had to shake it up a little bit. It doesn't matter who plays, it really doesn't matter who's playing, it's just a matter of how you want to go about playing."
The backbone of that approach, according to Warhop, is recognizing and accepting that succeeding as an offensive line is going to be a grind.
"[We need] more finish, more get-on-your-guy, more sustain to give our backs a better chance," said Warhop. "So it's just a little bit more grind.
"It comes down to this: Either you're going to be competitive or you're not. That's it. There's all kinds of guys – whether you're playing O-Line, D-Line, receiver, running back – that play the game, and it comes down to, 'Am I going to be a competitive guy or not?' If you're not going to be competitive, you're not going to survive. And so we needed to be more competitive in our finish in the run game."
Warhop is holding onto his discontent from last year, calling it a scar he will allow "to be bleeding for a long time." You can bet he'll be making sure his charges remember it too as they prepare for a new season, working to bring out the full extent of their competitiveness. Warhop thinks the Buccaneer lineman have the ability to meet his criteria.
"We may have it, but we weren't playing with it [in 2017]," he said. "You've got to get it where you want it."
Warhop saw it starting to get closer to where they want it in the season's second half, and the numbers back him up. The Bucs averaged 81.9 yards per game on the ground through their first eight games and 99.4 over the last eight. That's still shy of the team's goal, but it's worth noting that the offense picked up 111.6 rushing yards per game over the final five weeks, all against teams that were very much in the playoff hunt.
View photos of the newest Buccaneer, C Ryan Jensen. Photos by AP Images.
And the arrival of Jensen should help quite a bit, not only in terms of sheer talent but because he already possesses the type of approach that should fit in well with how Warhop wants the line to operate.
"What I've seen so far is he's really smart, he's tough, he's played," said Warhop. "He brings a confidence to that position even though really he had one year as a starter there in [Baltimore] but he's been around, been in the league for a number of years. So, I feel really good about the way he's been approaching it. I think we got a really good one."
Will the Buccaneers' linemen answer the call and embrace the grind as Warhop is urging? He says he can't speak for them, but he makes sure they know what he didn't like from 2017 and what he wants in 2018. Warhop says he doesn't use details from last season as a negative, but rather as a point of reference.
"You can't forget it," he said. "You can't forget the lessons that you should learn from that, because if you don't [remember], you're going to repeat them again. And so there's some things that we've got to come out of my room that we should learn from, how we've got to go about our business, how we've got to handle ourselves, how we've got to challenge each other within the room, how we've got to hold each other accountable to get done what we need to get done."