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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Offensive line success difficult to gauge

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Published:   |   Updated: March 20, 2013 at 07:14 PM
TAMPA -

It was not one of his shining moments. Bucs offensive tackle Donald Penn was beaten off the snap and his technique was so fouled up he wound up blocking a pass-rushing defensive end with his backside.

In the end, though, Penn got the job done.

On this one play during Tampa Bay's 31-14 preseason loss to the New England Patriots, Penn kept Andre Carter off quarterback Josh Freeman.

That's what matters most to the Bucs.

"It's a battle every snap in the trenches, so our common theme there when it comes to our offensive linemen is toughness and competitive desire," said Dennis Hickey, the Bucs' director of player personnel.

"What is a player's competitive nature in the trenches? Does he play to the whistle? Does he finish his blocks? Can he work in conjunction with everyone else? Is he smart? That's what we want to know. That's what we look for."

The Bucs have quite a bit invested in what could be the best offensive line in franchise history. The five starters — center Jeff Faine, guards Davin Joseph and Ted Larsen and tackles Donald Penn and Jeremy Trueblood — are slated to make $25.6 million in base salary this season.

But how does the casual fan sitting in his seat in the stadium on game day or the couch at home know if the Bucs are getting their money's worth? For that matter, how does the team know its investment is paying off?

There is no easy answer, because there is no objective measurement for offensive linemen. Unlike most aspects of the game, there are no live stats charting successfully executed blocks or sacks allowed.

So, is it really as simple as the old adage suggests — that if you don't notice an offensive lineman or hear his name called for a penalty, he's probably doing his job? Some believe it is.

Cincinnati Bengals offensive line coach Paul Alexander once likened the offensive line to a U.S. president's Secret Service team. You know they're there and as long as there are no mishaps, they're doing their job.

"It is hard for the common eye to see," Bucs offensive line coach Pat Morris said. "You can look at the individual battles, of course, but even then, unless you know what each player's assignment is on each play, you can't always tell if he's doing his job well.

"There could be a sack on one play for instance and it may look like it's a particular lineman's fault, but it may not have been his fault at all. It may have been someone else's fault. Might have even been the quarterback's fault. So the general statement is probably true."

Offensive lines go into games with specific objectives, such as leading the way on a 100-yard rushing day or limiting sacks, Joseph said. If those objectives are achieved, it is considered a successful day.

"But there are different definitions of good," said Joseph, a former first-round draft pick who recently signed a seven-year, $52 million free-agent contract to return to the Bucs. "And for us here, it's really about being physical. That's really our No. 1 measure of whether we're having a good day. Are we winning the physical battles?

"For instance, if you watch me and I'm staying in front of my guy, then you know I'm having a good day. If you start seeing guys laying on the ground all around me, that's when you know I'm having a really good day."

Center Jeff Faine uses a similar measurement to gauge not only his own play, but that of the line in general. Fans watching from the stands or at home can do the same, he said.

"On running plays, if you see the line surge forward, the line is doing well," he said. "If it's going backwards obviously it's getting beat. On pass plays, if the other team is in the backfield, they're getting past us. But as long as they're not getting to the quarterback and touching him, then you're probably doing a pretty good job."

The job of a personnel director or a coach is a little more complicated. Sure, they're concerned about the end results like everyone else, but they also have to evaluate each player's performance.

For each position there are specific skills and traits that go beyond the ability to outmuscle an opponent to determine whether a player is doing his job well.

In the case of the left tackle, for example, scouts and coaches look to see if the player is moving quickly and fluidly off the snap, because it is usually the job of the left tackle to protect the quarterback's blind side.

For left guards, the concern is for a mix of speed, agility and power, because left guards are often asked to pull out of the line of scrimmage and become the lead blocker on an outside running play.

For centers, the concern is mostly about smarts, because a center's job is to read the defense and help the quarterback change pass protections and blocking schemes on the fly.

For right guards and right tackles, the concerns are mostly physical. Both have to be able to plow their way forward on run plays and hold their ground on passing plays.

In the case of each position, however, the bottom line is a simple concept even casual fans can chart.

"I really just watch for consistency," Hickey said. "Again, is the player's temperament what we want it to be, is he in there fighting on every play; is he finishing his blocks, playing to the whistle?

"It really does come down to one-on-one matchups. Is he winning that, and is the team winning? Are we consistently moving the ball, changing the line of scrimmage and protecting the quarterback? If they are, then generally everyone is doing his job."

DOLPHINS AT BUCS

When: Saturday, 7:30 p.m. TV: CBS, Ch. 10 (subject to blackout locally)


rcummings@tampatrib.com (813) 259-7979

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