Rookie G Dan Buenning and the Bucs' youthful offensive line have come together well this season
It was forged in the heat of August, heat provided not just by the brutal Central Florida sun but by the lightning moves of Simeon Rice and the brute strength of Anthony McFarland.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive line had no easy days in training camp, especially considering a string of injuries to that unit that forced the healthy players to take extra reps. The five men who emerged from a wide-open battle to form the opening-day line didn't win their jobs by default. They were challenged day-in and day-out.
And they needed to be, because the challenges weren't going to end when the season began. It seems every week the Bucs' front five is faced with another premier edge rusher or massive and mobile defensive tackle.
Jason Taylor, John Abraham, Julius Peppers, Alex Brown and Adewale Ogunleye. Shaun Rogers, Kevin Williams, Rod Coleman, Bryant Young and Tommie Harris. From center to tackle, there have been few simple assignments this year.
It doesn't get any easier this Sunday. If the Saints' defense has one obvious strength on paper, it is at defensive end. Both starters, Charles Grant and Darren Howard, surpassed 10 sacks last season. They were one of only two pairs of end teammates in the entire NFL, along with Indy's Dwight Freeney and Robert Mathis, to accomplish that feat. Meanwhile, rookie "reserve" Will Smith had another 7.5 sacks, and he leads the 2005 team with 6.5 through 11 games.
The Saints' defensive ends come at you like waves of heat, raising the temperature like the procession of their jerseys: 91 (Smith), 92 (Tony Bryant), 93 (Howard), 94 (Grant).
That's one of the issues the Bucs are working on this week on the practice field. Their five blockers – from left to right, Anthony Davis, Dan Buenning, John Wade, Sean Mahan and Kenyatta Walker – have had many good days and some rough outings this season, but they've impressed Head Coach Jon Gruden with their steady improvement, founded on their efforts in practice. And their youth. This line is still at the beginning of its development and Gruden believes there is room to grow. The Bucs line has held two of the last four opponents sack-less and helped produce 247 rushing yards over the last two weeks.
"The left guard [Buenning] is a really fine player," he said. "He's no mystery to people in the league. I've had a lot of people compliment him to me, in terms of how he's playing. Anthony Davis has fought through a persistent ankle injury and done quite well against some of the premier players in football. And Mahan, let's be honest – his versatility, his athleticism has helped us. We like to pull our guards and he has certainly been a factor there. It's been pleasing."
Grant, Smith and Howard combined for 4.5 sacks of Buccaneer quarterbacks in the two Bucs-Saints meetings last year. All three of those Saints ends have joined the league in the last five years, as has Peppers in Carolina. The Bucs need to respond to this influx of pass-rushing talent with young, sturdy blockers of their own, and it appears that effort is gaining steam.
For years, the Bucs' offensive line has been a work in progress with no apparent end in sight. Investments in the line have come repeatedly through the draft (15 linemen picked in the last 10 drafts, including five taken in the first three rounds) and periodically through free agency (Roman Oben, Jeff Christy, Todd Steussie, John Wade, et. al.).
Now, however, the Bucs are starting a front five with an average age of 26, and Wade at center is the elder statesman at 30. And this doesn't appear to be simply a transition phase. Those five have started every game this season together and are beginning to mesh nicely, leading to optimism about the future of the team's blocking.
"I don't want to continue to preach too many good things here, but when you look at that offensive line – Anthony Davis and Buenning and Mahan – and the number of young players who are making progress, that's reason to be excited around here. And we haven't had that in a long time here, this many young guys playing."
Wade is the calming influence in the middle of all that youth, and the man who calls all the blocking changes at the line of scrimmage. Gruden calls him a "fun guy" and he certainly keeps things loose in the locker room, but Wade's most defining characteristic is toughness. His surprisingly fast return from a very serious knee injury last season has allowed the line to come together in its current format.
"The kind of knee injury he had, a lot of us didn't think he'd even be close to being ready for training camp," said Gruden. "But he came back way ahead of schedule. That allowed us to move Mahan and get some more athleticism and pop in there at right guard and it's helped us."
The three new starters on the line quickly flipped Walker from young guy to seasoned veteran. He has, in fact, only four fewer career starts than Wade and 24 more than Buenning, Davis and Mahan combined. He is the only player on the line to have come into the league as a first-round draft choice, but he has had his ups and downs over five seasons in Tampa. This season is probably the highest of the ups.
"I think it's been the best year for Kenyatta since I've been here," said Gruden. "We've got a long way to go and we're going to need his best stuff down the stretch with Grant, Peppers and all these guys looming on the horizon. He's worked his butt off and I like the progress he's made."
That's the case with the Bucs' entire front line: The team is pleased with its development but still looking for more. With the competition they face on a weekly basis, that's basically a necessity.
One of the five players on the Bucs' official injury report was upgraded to probable on Thursday and allowed to participate fully in practice. The winner: tight end Anthony Becht, who is playing through a knee injury.
Safety Will Allen (knee), kicker Matt Bryant (hamstring), linebacker Marquis Cooper (chest) and defensive end Dewayne White (hamstring) all remained questionable. None of the four practiced, but Gruden issued a blanket statement that they are all improving.
The Bucs aren't taking any chances with their two players with tweaked hamstrings, shutting Bryant and White down for the first two days of practice. Kicker Todd France, signed to the practice squad on Tuesday, has handled all the kicking duties in practice. Bryant could give his sore right leg a try on Friday.
"We'll see how he feels tomorrow and go from there," said Gruden. "We've got him on a day-to-day string right now. We'll see how he feels tomorrow. If he can kick, we'll give him a shot. If he can't, he won't."