The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' offensive linemen are caught in a bit of a Catch-22. Unlike in the novel that's the source of that term, however, the issue starts with asking to get into something, not out of it.
What the Buccaneers' first-team blockers would like to get into, specifically, is Friday night's preseason game against Cleveland, and not just for one drive. Head Coach Bruce Arians actually made a point of asking those five – Donovan Smith, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen, Alex Cappa and Demar Dotson – how long they would like to be left in the game and, perhaps surprisingly, they lobbied for more preseason action.
"I said 'How much do we need to play?'" Arians recounted. "They said 'We need a half.' I said 'I don't think you do. We'll see about that.' But, they wanted to play a half to get into a little bit more rhythm."
It's Arians' call, obviously, and he said he will go into Friday's game with no plan for playing time absolutely set in stone. He has only kept the starting offense in for one drive in each of the first two games, and those possessions have gone reasonably well. One covered 82 yards and led to a touchdown and the other advanced into field goal range before a third-down sack forced a punt instead. Those drives have included just one sack allowed and 58 yards on 11 running plays.
And therein is the catch for the O-Line. They want the extra time in order to perform well, but if they perform too well they probably won't get much extra time.
"If we start real fast and then have a good first quarter, that might be it," said Arians, regarding the offense as a whole. "If it's slow, we might play a bit more. Looking at number of snaps, if we have two 10-play drives, we'll probably be finished. If we have five three-play drives, we'll keep playing – one of those things. Defense will be the same way."
Even just coming out for a second drive would be helpful for Jensen and company. The veteran center knows from experience that this would be a better gauge of how ready the line is for regular-season action.
"A quarter-and-a-half [or] a half is good for us," he said. "That first drive always knocks the air out of you, no matter how in-shape you are. So, for me, getting two, three series in would really determine how good a shape we are and give us a little more action as a full unit to come together."
It would also provide a clearer indication of how much the team has improved its rushing attack after ranking 29th in that category a year ago. Of the 11 carries mentioned run behind the first-team line so far, nine are by running backs Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones (two others were Winston scrambles), and five of those nine have picked up six yards or more. After that, the Buccaneers have had 39 carries behind reserve lines and averaged 2.7 yards per tote.
"Getting the running game started has been an emphasis this year for us," said Jensen. "There's still some stuff we need to improve on but we're getting better every day. We kind of pride ourselves in keeping our noses to grindstone and just working and getting better every day."
The argument against leaving starters on the field any longer than a coach deems necessary is obvious: It increases the risk of an injury to a starter in a game that won't have any bearing on the standings. And this is where Arians sees a different sort of catch.
"It's a Catch-22," he said. "It always has been and always will be. It's just like going out and tackling in practice – you've got to do it and you've just got to hold your breath that nobody gets hurt."
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