The return of Dan Buenning helped the Bucs shore up their protection of Chris Simms on Sunday
He explodes off the left edge with pure speed, more speed than someone his size should have. But he's got moves too, and one quick spin to the inside leaves him hovering over a quarterback, celebrating a sack. Then he lines up to do it again, only this time he uses a surprising power move to the inside with equally effective results. That's Carolina Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers, a pass-rushing force who the Tampa Bay Buccaneers will have to account for Sunday if they intend to snap a two-game losing streak.
Neutralizing Peppers is a formidable task made all the more imposing by the several other amply skilled pass-rushers on the Panthers' D-Line, such as defensive end Mike Rucker and defensive tackle Kris Jenkins. They're all looking to get their licks in on the opposing quarterback and they're all made better by the attention given to Peppers.
Enter the Buccaneers' offensive line. Considered part of the problem when the Bucs opened flat against the Baltimore Ravens, Tampa's men up front rebounded nicely last Sunday against the Atlanta Falcons, though that fact might have been lost amid the continued scoring problems. It's an outing they will need to build on if they are to slow down Peppers and company and give the Bucs' offense a chance for success.
"It was very good, it was outstanding, it was tremendous," said Head Coach Jon Gruden, referring to the Bucs' pass protection against the Falcons. "It's one of the disappointing things as I stand here today and say, we should have completed a lot more balls. We should have completed a lot more balls, the protection was outstanding. I mean, it was outstanding. We picked up a number of different blitzes. I thought it was excellent. I thought it was firm. [It was] probably as good as it's been in a long time, at least since I have been here."
Part of the reason for the improvement was the return of guard Dan Buenning, who injured his ankle in Tampa Bay's last preseason game and was forced to miss the season opener. Already suffering the loss of rookie first-round selection Davin Joseph, the Bucs were forced to start two reserves at right and left guard, each with little time to get acclimated to their suddenly new roles. With Buenning back in the lineup, the Bucs started their entire offensive line from last season – Anthony Davis at left tackle, Buenning at left guard, John Wade at center, Sean Mahan at right guard and Kenyatta Walker at right tackle.
Reunited and working together, the unit's work was an obvious improvement from Week One. Against the Ravens and the aggressive blitzing schemes of defensive coordinator Rex Ryan, the Buccaneers gave up three sacks and allowed quarterback Chris Simms to be harassed all game. In week two against Atlanta and in the incredibly loud Georgia Dome, Simms was sacked only once despite dropping back a career-high 54 times. Sure, there were moments when he was hurried but overall the offensive line recognized and reacted to Atlanta's pass rush much more effectively, providing Simms multiple opportunities to get the ball down the field.
"When you get a good look and you have protection, then you have to make the play," Gruden said. "We have to start stroking the ball, we have to be a little bit quicker, we have to anticipate better, we have to see more, and those are the things we are going to hit on.
"There were some very good things yesterday in terms of pass protection. The tape isn't all bad when you look at it. That's the sad thing. I'm not going to stand up here and justify everything that happened, I'm just going to say that there were some good things. Our receivers ran good routes, we caught the football. We had some good looks in the passing game and unfortunately we didn't convert on them. We're going to build off of that. We're going to try to make those plays this week and next week and the following week."
If the Buccaneers can do that against the Carolina Panthers and Peppers, who last week notched three sacks against the Minnesota Vikings, they will not only have slowed down one of the NFL's premier pass-rushers, they will have given themselves a good chance of winning the game and sending a division rival to the basement of the NFC South. But remember, it all starts with the men up front.