Rookie G Davin Joseph has impressed the coaching staff, but he knows the offensive line needs to improve its communication
Live by the sword, die by the sword. That could very well be the motto for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers this preseason as they have pummeled opposing quarterbacks for 10 sacks in three games but also seen their own passers sacked nine times in the same span.
The Buccaneers expect their pass protection to be better than this fall, but it will again be tested Thursday night against the Houston Texans, whose defense has been particularly active throughout its own three preseason games. So far, the Texans have sacked opposing quarterbacks nine times. While that number mirrors the total for the Bucs' defense, the Texans offense has only surrendered three sacks. The numbers for the two teams' starting quarterbacks suggest that differential has made a difference. The Texans' David Carr has posted a 63.6 completion percentage along with 20 more pass attempts this preseason than Bucs quarterback Chris Simms, who has a 54.2 completion percentage.
Whether they've been a result of breakdowns in communications, missed assignments or the quarterbacks holding the ball too long, sacks on Buccaneers quarterbacks have come too frequently for the liking of Head Coach Jon Gruden.
"On a couple of these possessions, there was no business of us getting hit from the blind side," said Gruden after the Bucs game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, which included five sacks of Tampa Bay quarterbacks. "There's no business."
Carr knows that pain only too well. Last year, he was the league's leading sack victim, going down 68 times, or one every 6.2 attempts. The second most battered QB was Dallas' Drew Bledsoe, who was sacked once every 10.2 attempts. Buccaneer passers were dropped once every 12 pass attempts in 2005, but so far this preseason it has been once every 8.5 attempts.
Of course, one shouldn't make too much of preseason numbers, as always. The Bucs have had frequent mismatches between their reserves and the opposing starters, and they've had a lot of playing time logged by young and inexperienced players. Still, even if those three-game numbers aren't an indication of what's to come, those sacks have hurt.
They've hurt the development of the offense. In the Bucs' second game this preseason against the Miami Dolphins, the starting unit took over at their own 40-yard line with a 1:56 left in the half. Consecutive sacks of Simms on first and second down led to a third-and-21 and an eventual three-and-out. As drive-killers, those sacks took away the opportunity for the team to run its two-minute offense under live game conditions.
They've hurt the defense. A game later, rookie QB Bruce Gradkowski was sacked by Jaguars rookie James Wyche and lost the football on the Buccaneers' 21-yard line. Jags DT Anthony Maddox recovered the fumble at the 13-yard line. Backed up under the shadow of its own goal post, the Bucs' defense surrendered a touchdown just four plays later.
And they've hurt the score. In that same Bucs-Jags game, the offense mounted an impressive drive to the Jacksonville seven-yard line. Already leading 8-0, this was an opportunity for the Buccaneers offense to make a statement and gain some confidence. Instead, the Buccaneers came away with no points after Simms was sacked twice, turning a second-and-seven into a fourth-and-27. Kicker Matt Bryant pushed his field goal attempt right, and the scoring threat was over. Had it been a regular season game, that offensive series could have come back to haunt the team.
Gruden knows the value of pass protection better than anyone. Though his offensive system is often described as a derivative of the West Coast scheme, relying on a heavy dose of three-step drops, the Buccaneers still like to go down the field. They did it throughout the season last year, finding receiver Joey Galloway time and again, and as recently as last week, receiver David Boston was targeted on consecutive deep throws along the sidelines. Plays such as these take time to develop. The receiver needs time to get down the field, and the quarterback has to remain unfettered during his delivery.
That's exactly why the team spent its first two picks of the 2006 NFL Draft on offensive linemen, Davin Joseph and Jeremy Trueblood. Such picks don't get most fans excited the way receivers and running backs do when they are selected, but they can be just as important to a team's success, perhaps even more.
Both Joseph, the team's first-round selection, and Trueblood, a second-round pick, have seen extensive playing time this preseason. The 6-3, 313-pound Joseph has performed well enough to work his way into the starting lineup at right guard, and Trueblood has filled in admirably at right tackle for an injured Kenyatta Walker as well as seen significant playtime after Walker's return.
"I've been really pleased," Gruden said, commenting on the rookie duo. "Joseph has started three games. He has had some really good days. He's had some really good days out here. He's had his eyes opened to the level of competition he's going to see every week, so we've been very impressed with him. Trueblood has had his moments where he's been very impressive. He's making a transition to right tackle, and we're excited about that."
As impressive as the rookies are, they're still rookies, and the offensive line is still a work-in-progress. Joseph admits there is still much work to be done.
"One thing is communication, and that's what we're working on now," Joseph said. "We had the [crowd noise] speakers out here today, working on communication. That's one thing that we lacked. It wasn't effort. It wasn't people not knowing what to do. It was communication. That's something we are working to improve on, and I think we're not far off."
The Texans' attacking defense should provide ample opportunities for Joseph and his fellow linemen.
"I don't know if their starters are playing the whole game," Joseph said. "I don't know what their game plan is going into this game. If we get their starters, that's great. If we get their twos and threes, that's fine. We're not really worried about who we're playing against, we're worried about bettering ourselves as a group and getting a little bit more chemistry and a little bit more timing."
Trueblood had a more direct take.
"We're just working hard to try and keep the bruises on Simms to a minimum."