The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have invested heavily in their offensive line in recent years. If the Buccaneer's offensive explosion in Los Angeles last Sunday was the start of a trend, that investment might be about to pay off in a big way.
Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet, the starting left side of the line, were both second-round draft picks in 2015, selected right after the quarterback they have been tasked to protect, Jameis Winston. Center Ryan Jensen was a big-ticket free agency signing in 2018, and right guard Alex Cappa came aboard as a third-round draft pick about a month later. Even right tackle Demar Dotson, whose NFL roots are humbler as an undrafted free agent years ago, is playing on a sizeable contract he signed three years ago.
Winston won NFC Offensive Player of the Week honors for his four-touchdown performance against the Rams, while Chris Godwin, Mike Evans, Cameron Brate and Ronald Jones were making fantasy football players all across the country happy. It would be difficult for any of that to happen, however, if the offensive line wasn't pinning everything in place. Tampa Bay's five-man front had an outstanding day at the office in the L.A. Coliseum, and that was against a defense led by the oft-unstoppable Aaron Donald, with a host of ball-hawking veterans in the secondary. The Rams had the NFL's fourth-best pass defense coming into the weekend.
"You can't say enough," said Head Coach Bruce Arians of how well his O-Line played on Sunday. "You don't get deep shots down the field against that team very often and not get knocked flat on your butt when you're letting it go. The offensive line and the tight ends did a heck of a job in the running game – and you add the receivers to the running game – but the front five and the tight ends did a hell of a job."
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 5 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
The Buccaneers averaged a season-low 2.9 yards per carry against the Rams but were still seeing enough success to run it 30 times (versus 41 passes) and keep the offense balanced and the play-action dangerous. That also doesn't include two runs totaling 78 yards by Ronald Jones that were erased by penalty, one holding and one illegal shift and neither on an offensive lineman.
Meanwhile, Winston was sacked just twice in 43 dropbacks and Arians said after the game that those were the result of the quarterback holding the ball for an extra-long period of time. Winston otherwise had a good amount of time to operate on both of his drops and he ended up with a 68% completion rate and a passer rating of 120.5. He was fully aware that it all started up front, where the starting five has developed the type of "chemistry" that is more than just an empty buzzword when it comes to this specific position.
"They're communicating all the time – you should just hear them talking at practice," said Winston. "So, when you've got a guy that's a leader like Ali, who is one of the best guards in this league, you've got one of the best left tackles in the league and one of the best veteran right tackles in the league, you can really feel the chemistry of our offensive line and they're really doing a great job. Coach Goody [Harold Goodwin] and Coach Gil [Joe Gilbert] are really working their tails off in that room."
Jensen and Dotson are on the injury report to start Week Five, and neither practiced on Wednesday, but history suggests they'll find a way to suit up on Sunday in New Orleans and maintain that hard-earned cohesiveness up front. Jensen fought through his back injury to make sure that was maintained throughout last Sunday's game. Arians said Jensen is playing at a high level despite the ailment.
"[He's been] really, really good," said Arians. "That fourth quarter, most guys probably would've came out. His back was locked up, but he just kept battling. He said, 'I'm not coming out.' He's playing really well, and our interior running game – the two guards and centers – are playing well."
Winston thinks his two 2015 draft mates should be getting Pro Bowl consideration. Marpet is one of the Bucs' team captains, too, and a strong leader, though he gets a lot of help in the motivation department from Jensen, a fiery player on the field.
"I think Jensen really sets the tone," said Winston. "Ali's doing an amazing job – he's one of our leaders, one of our captains. But Jensen – his tenacity up front really sets the tone up front for all those guys. If you just watch closely after plays, Jensen is all the way down the field like he finished a play. We have great guys like Ali, who is across from Cap – Cap has learned from Ali every step of the way."
The Bucs managed to seriously limit the damage caused by Aaron Donald on Sunday, which is a pretty significant achievement. They may not play a better individual defender the rest of the way, but that doesn't mean things will get any easier. Winston called the Saints' front, led by Cameron Jordan, one of the best in the NFL. That crew recently got Sheldon Rankins back from an Achilles tendon injury suffered in the playoffs last year, and they're loaded with talent with the likes of Trey Hendrickson, Marcus Davenport, Malcom Brown and David Onyemata.
That's a stiff challenge, but the Buccaneers have put a lot of effort into trying to build an offensive front that can stand up to such defensive pressure. They did just that in Los Angeles; hopefully that's the start of a full season of excellent offensive line play.