G Dan Buenning has started 20 of the Bucs 21 regular-season games at left guard since he was drafted in 2005
Since Week Three of this season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have replaced 40% of their starting offensive line with rookies and averaged 156.5 rushing yards and two sacks allowed per game. Even so, they are still searching for the optimum five-man combination up front.
After Jeremy Trueblood took over at right tackle in Week Four and fellow rookie Davin Joseph stepped in at right guard in Week Five, scrutiny has now befallen the left guard position. Last Sunday against Cincinnati, second-year man Dan Buenning made his fourth consecutive start at that spot but was replaced for roughly half the game by fourth-year man Sean Mahan.
That has left Buc watchers wondering which of the two young players will get the start at left guard this coming Sunday against Philadelphia, and whether both men might once again see action over the course of the game's 60 minutes.
Head Coach Jon Gruden said the final determination on that issue has not yet been made.
"We're just evaluating that," said Gruden. "We feel like we've got two pretty good young players. We're going to make that decision when we get to the stadium on Sunday, probably. Both guys are working in there, as always, and both guys are competing hard."
The 6-4, 320-pound Buenning was one of the Bucs' most pleasant surprises as a rookie in 2005. A fourth-round draft pick who won the starting left guard spot in training camp, he played consistently well throughout the season and eventually started all 17 games, including the playoff contest against Washington. He was set to start the 2006 season at the same spot before suffering an ankle injury in the opening moments of the team's preseason finale at Houston.
That injury kept Buenning out of the season opener against Baltimore, and Mahan took his spot. Mahan had started all 16 games at right guard in 2005 but prepared himself to play on the left side of the center if needed after Buenning went down. Later, on the Wednesday before that opening game, Joseph suffered a knee injury in practice, putting the Bucs two guards down. The coaching staff chose to leave Mahan on the left side and let Jeb Terry prepare to replace Joseph at right guard. That, indeed, is how the offensive line looked against Baltimore.
When Buenning returned to action in Week Two, Mahan flopped back to the right side to replace Joseph in the starting lineup. Joseph's return last weekend (the rookie played a few snaps at New Orleans but didn't make his first start until the Cincinnati game) pushed Mahan to a reserve role and snapped his string of 28 consecutive starts. He had also started the last eight games of 2004 at center after a knee injury landed John Wade on injured reserve.
In other words, as young as the Bucs' two current options at right guard are, they are also fairly well experienced, and both have the coaches' confidence. That's a theme across the Bucs' new-look offensive line as the team looks to establish the type of up-front dominance it has rarely had in the franchise's history.
"We want to have the best line in the league – that's our goal, not to have depth," said Gruden. "We want to try to get five guys who are great players who can help us dominate and win games. That's the goal. We do have some young guys. We've had some injuries, we've had to adjust a little bit but we are indeed rounding into form and that's helping us, I think."
While it may take new Buccaneer cornerback Phillip Buchanon a bit of time to pick up the team's defensive schemes, he could actually make an impact as early as this Sunday. The Bucs might let Buchanon have a crack at the punt return job.
That's something for which Buchanon needs little additional instruction, even though Gruden joked that the team is teaching him "which way to go," after he catches a punt. In a little over four seasons with Oakland and Houston, Buchanon averaged an excellent 10.5 yards on 92 punt returns.
Could he test out that average Sunday at Raymond James Stadium?
"You know what, there's a chance," said Gruden. "There's a chance of that happening. Obviously, we've got to see what the health of our team is and how many guys we need at each position to go play this game. Right now he's a bit of just a returner because he hasn't figured out our entire defense yet, see? We'll make that decision as we see the health of the team towards the end of the week."
Specifically, the health of wide receiver Mark Jones could be a significant factor. Jones had handled every punt for the Buccaneers from the beginning of the 2005 season through the fourth game of 2006 but he was deactivated last weekend due to a hamstring injury. Receivers Ike Hilliard and Joey Galloway filled in for Jones, who is once again on the injury report for this game, considered questionable.
Buchanon averaged 9.9 yards on his eight returns for Houston this season. His best season as a return man came with Oakland in 2003, when he finished sixth in the NFL with an average of 13.6 yards on 36 returns.
The Buccaneers had the same number of cornerbacks available for Thursday's practice as they had on Wednesday, but a slightly altered cast. Brian Kelly, who had practiced on Wednesday, was held out on Thursday but Juran Bolden who sat out the first workout returned on Thursday.
Both Bolden and Kelly are considered questionable for Sunday's game, the former with a hip injury and the latter with a nagging turf-toe problem that has already cost him three of the Bucs' first five games.
In addition to Bolden, Kelly and Jones, the four other Bucs who were questionable on Wednesday's injury report – tight end Anthony Becht (foot), linebacker Shelton Quarles (knee), defensive end Simeon Rice (shoulder) and wide receiver Maurice Stovall (back) – all remained under that designation. However, the team did remove three players from the list, all who had started the week as probable: Wade, cornerback Torrie Cox, tight end Dave Moore.