The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 513-yard explosion in a shootout with the New Orleans Saints in Week Seven was notable as it was just the third time in franchise history that the team had made it halfway to a thousand on one day. It was an impressive performance in many ways, not the least of which it was accomplished without the services of Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph, who was supposed to be a major cog in the Bucs' attack in 2012.
Amazingly, the Buccaneers crossed the 500-yard mark again on Sunday in Oakland, racking up 515 yards in a 42-32 victory that also included the most points by a Tampa Bay offense in 11 years. This time, the offense accomplished the feat without both Joseph and his fellow Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks. That starting guard tandem might have been considered the biggest strength on the Bucs' roster heading into training camp, and they are still expected to be a major part of the team's success in the coming seasons, but somehow Tampa Bay is getting the job done without them.
"Those are two of the premier players in this league," said center/guard Jeremy Zuttah. "You can't replace guys like that, and everybody has to do a little bit better job when people like that go down."
Did they ever. "Next man up," indeed.
Tampa Bay's win in Oakland will be remembered for a long time, mostly because of the exploits of rookie running back Doug Martin. Martin ripped off touchdown runs of 45, 67, 70 and one yards en route to the greatest single-game output by a back in franchise history, with 251 on the ground and another 21 through the air. The performance has brought Martin comparisons to some of the greatest NFL runners ever (e.g. his 486 scrimmage yards in the last two games are the most since Walter Payton in 1977), but it also ought to create a little appreciation for Tampa Bay's reworked offensive line.
There aren't any such stats an O-Lineman can put up on game day to throw the Twittersphere into a frenzy. Their personal numbers are pretty much confined to starts and games played, and those are earned by what they do well before game day. Indirectly, however, they can be judged by what the offense produces, particularly in terms of rushing yards and quarterback sacks (or lack thereof). By those standards, Tampa Bay's line had itself quite a day, indeed.
And this was that line:
- Left tackle Donald Penn, the stalwart and another former Pro Bowler, making his 84th consecutive start at that spot
- Left guard Jeremy Zuttah, until Week Nine the team's starting center, but a player with a long track record of useful versatility
- Center Ted Larsen, a third-year man making his first start ever as the snapper
- Right guard Jamon Meredith, a converted tackle in just his fourth NFL start at guard
- Right tackle Demar Dotson, a college basketball player whose only NCAA experience on the gridiron came at defensive tackle
The loss of Nicks to injured reserve with a toe ailment last week prompted the Bucs to move Zuttah from center back to left guard, where he was the team's primary starter in 2011. Into the center position stepped Larsen, who had opened the first four games of the season at right guard after the loss of Joseph but was then replaced by Meredith.
Zuttah admits that it took that group a while to get going in its new configuration on Sunday.
"A little bit," he said on Monday, laughing. "We had some guys moving around, playing some things they hadn't played in a while and trying to get acclimated. Hopefully we'll keep improving on that and keep getting better."
Tampa Bay's offense moved the ball fairly well in the first half, gaining 212 yards and averaging about five yards a play. But Zuttah said it was a gradual learning process, and in the case of Martin's big day, it definitely didn't heat up until the second half. The rookie back had just 31 rushing yards at halftime. It complicated matters that the Bucs' new-look interior line was tasked with slowing down one of the league's best set of defensive tackles, Richard Seymour and Tommy Kelly.
"It took a little bit," said Zuttah. "With the way practices are now in the NFL, you don't really get to hit. When the first thing you're hitting is one of the all-time great D-Linemen in this league, it just takes a little bit too get going. We started to do a couple things, letting me pull and stuff like that, and we started rolling."
It didn't take long after the break, as the Bucs opened the third quarter in a groove, as they have done quite often this year. The first possession was an 80-yard touchdown drive that ended in Martin's first spectacular breakaway. The second Buc drive was a 60-yarder that produced Josh Freeman's four-yard TD pass to Mike Williams. Oh, in addition to opening holes for Martin, Zuttah and company also allowed Freeman to be sacked just once in 31 dropbacks. And on the 64-yard pass to Vincent Jackson that set up Tampa Bay's first score, Freeman spent a veritable eternity in the pocket letting the play develop.
The best thing that the Bucs' offensive line did on Sunday, however, was obviously springing Martin for his long runs. Zuttah's looking forward to doing that a lot more during the second half of the season, even if he's doing it from a slightly different spot.
"Doug's a special player," said the veteran lineman. "He's only eight games into his NFL career, so we're all excited to see where he's going to take it. He just keeps getting better every game. He's a fun back to block for. You give him a little bit of a crease and he does a lot of work. Once he gets into the open field he can do some special things, and you take pride in getting him to the second level. It's fun just to watch him do it once he gets out there."