Jameis Winston was under pressure against the Indianapolis Colts in a way he really hadn't been all season long. He was sacked a season-high five times, against a team that had recorded just 14 sacks on the year. The Bucs themselves had given up just 17 sacks prior to that game.
It was, ultimately, a case of Tampa Bay's talent deficiencies along the offensive line finally catching up with them. As I argued last week, one major reason the Bucs' offensive line has looked good this year is that the Bucs have done a very good job of compensating for their mistakes, both through individual play on the part of Jameis Winston and Doug Martin, and through scheme adjustments. The line is better than it was last year -- how could it not be -- but it's no dominant unit.
The biggest problem with the Bucs offensive line right now is Donovan Smith. The Bucs coaches keep praising him, but the tape doesn't lie: he gets beat too often every week. According to Pro Football Focus, he allowed seven pressures against the Colts. He hasn't allowed a lot of sacks, but that has more to do with Winston's play and other circumstances than his personal performance.
Donovan Smith beaten too easily, almost leads to an INT: pic.twitter.com/9cJdYYeIkL— Cian Fahey (@Cianaf) December 1, 2015
All of that's not unexpected given the fact that he's a second-round rookie and there has definitely been improvement, but he's also a liability for the offense right now. We'll have to wait and see whether that gets better the rest of the season, or next year -- but he's far from a surefire, reliable starter.
Smith wasn't the only Bucs offensive lineman to struggle this week. In fact, every lineman with the exception of Logan Mankins was a liability for most of the game, like Evan Smith below. Ali Marpet can't come back soon enough.
That was no exception. As the game wore on, it seemed like at least one individual lineman got beat on every single snap, and that led to some ridiculous situations for Jameis Winston -- and it started to affect the way he reacted to pressure as well. Over the past month he's gotten better and better at staying calm, finding the open receiver and getting the ball off under pressure, whereas earlier in the season he was often scrambling too quickly and overreacting to pass rushers.
That's what happens there, with Doug Martin getting beat in pass protection on the blitz. The Colts consistently blitzed the Bucs, confident that at least one blocker would lose a one-on-one. In this case the pressure is real, but Winston makes it worse by trying to improvise and spin his way out of trouble, rather than staying within the design of the play -- or throwing the ball away. Those plays became more frequent as the game continued, as did errant throws.
It's easy to forget given the good job the Bucs have done this year of compensating for their offensive line, but this line is not overly skilled. Logan Mankins has played well over the past month, but is getting up there in age and has had plenty of worrying games over the past three years. Joe Hawley and Evan Smith are both just average starting centers, if that, and Gosder Cherilus is experienced but incredibly inconsistent. Donovan Smith is talented, but has so many technique lapses in every game that it's hard to count on him, and the only player to do consistently well is the currently-injured rookie Ali Marpet.
That's not to say that the line has been a problem this year. Certainly they've done well enough to win a bunch of games, and they were rarely the main cause of any loss. At the same time, they haven't exactly led the team to wins, either. It's a mediocre offensive line -- not quite bad enough to be a liability, except in games like this.