Everyone has dissected the Bucs' glaring holes on the defensive line and there is a pressing need (even still) to find dependable pass-rushing from that unit. However, it is the other line that continues to be neglected and ignored.
Our offense took some major steps in the right direction last year and similar strides can be reasonably expected this season. These improvements, though, have hidden an alarming need for improvement along the offensive line. As a franchise that has never really featured even a mildly successful offense, we are in danger of losing sight of how good we really can be. We must not allow our feeble improvements beyond mediocrity to sway our level of acceptance.
Certainly there are copious reasons to be pleased with the general direction of the Bucs offense. Josh Freeman has almost single-handedly provided a sense of hope to the franchise, which it has not seen in years. Moreover, he is unquestionably the brightest hope for future success the Bucs have had from an offensive player ever. Teamed with young and talented skill position players such as Mike Williams, Arrelious Benn, Legarrette Blount, and others it is just too convenient to overlook the offensive line.
It is probably a fair expectation that the Bucs will return all 5 starters as well as Jeremy Zuttah who is invaluable as a capable utility player who can fill in across each position on the line. While at first it seems like a positive to return everyone from an offensive line unit that helped the Bucs finish 8th in the NFL in run defense last year, how much of that is a mirage? Better yet, how much better could the Bucs be with improvements along the offensive front?
Our talent level from the front 5 is lacking to be sure. Our best player in the group is probably Donald Penn, whom no elite team would be able to call their top lineman. Yet this group fared well according to cursory glances at the statistics. Digging just a little bit deeper, however, we find that some of those talented skill position players (especially Blount) helped the line look better than they really were.
According to Football Outsiders who do a great job of charting these kinds of things, Tampa Bay was stuffed on 23% of their runs - good for 26th best in the NFL (or 7th worse if you prefer). When we got to the 2nd level of the defense we were 13th and in the open field we were 5th. In other words, on the rare occasions that Blount was able to find a hole, he was able to attack with effectively and ferociously. If we could improve the line enough to lower that abominable percentage even 5% just imagine how many more yards Blount would have ran for and if the run game were to significantly improve just imagine how many windows Josh Freeman would have to pass through (not to mention the extra time from both the improved run game as well as directly from the improved line).
We have too many needs on defense to count, but with just minor changes and improvements to the offensive line we can reach the rare (especially in Tampa) distinction of being a truly feared offense. The young defense will also better be able to grow knowing that they will have plenty of scoring from their own squad to support their deficiencies and learning-curves. We will certainly not (nor should we) stand pat with our current defensive roster, but there is at least one person hoping for some free-agency money to be spent on a lineman from the other side of the ball.