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It’s time for the Bucs’ offensive line to carry the team

Thursday night will be a huge test.

Tom Brady is going to need his offensive line to play the best it’s played all year Thursday night.
| Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Tampa Bay’s offense has been hit by injuries. Hard.

O.J. Howard is on IR after tearing his Achilles. Chris Godwin has missed half the season and will likely miss his third game on Thursday night. Mike Evans hurt his ankle against the Chargers and hasn’t practiced all week. Scotty Miller, Leonard Fournette, and Justin Watson haven’t practiced all week, either. Lesean McCoy is considered week-to-week with a high ankle sprain.

It’s rather ironic that Tom Brady hasn’t really had a full game with all of his weapons. The closest he’s come to a full arsenal was Week One against the Saints and even then, Evans missed practice all week with a hamstring issue. The weapons were why he chose Tampa Bay, but hey, he’s doing his thing and making it work, so far.

Regardless, a bunch of injuries plus a short week —I mean, like, a really short week— on the road is a really dangerous recipe, no matter which logo is slapped on the side of a team’s helmet. Plus, it really makes things interesting when you sprinkle on the fact that the Bucs offense centers around big plays in the passing game and most of the aforementioned guys are key cogs in the pewter and red machine.

“It’s a lot of thought that has to be put in [because] you don’t know,” offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said when asked how he tailors Thursday’s game plan around the injuries. “The unknown, the inability to really, truly know until you get to the game – it always makes it a little more difficult.”

Unknown is a good way to put it, but it’s not like the whole offense will be a mystery come Thursday. Outside of quarterback, there’s one position that has remained unencumbered by injury, and that’s the offensive line. This is not only important in its own right, but also because the front five has to play its best game of the young season if this team wants to win on Thursday night.

The Bears are 3-1 and have one of the better defenses in the NFL. They have a stout front seven, a good secondary, and they shut people down in the red zone.

NFL: Chicago Bears at Atlanta Falcons
Khalil Mack is still one of the premier defenders in the NFL.
Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

But where they do work is in the trenches. Chicago employs the outstanding trio of Akiem Hicks, Robert Quinn, and of course, Khalil Mack. Hicks is the inside guy and can create a world of pain for opposing offensive linemen and quarterbacks. Quinn and Mack are the edge guys. Quinn may be up there in age, but he still has the veteran swag and can certainly find a way to manipulate the young Tristan Wirfs when he does play on the left side of the defense.

“They’re hard to block, so it should be a heck of a challenge for us, especially on a short week,” Bruce Arians told reporters on Tuesday.

Those three are as dangerous as it comes. Chicago also has a couple of wildcards in Bilal Nichols and Barkevious Mingo (believe it or not). Nichols showed what he was capable of against the Colts and it was pretty scary, while Mingo has certainly flashed at times this year.

I say all this to say that this game will be no walk in the park for the offensive line. If the Bears are able to create havoc up front, then it could really hamper this offense, especially if the offense’s injuries carry into Thursday night.

“Their front seven is very good. They’ve got a bunch of good players across the board – guys who can really rush the passer and also some big guys up the middle who can stop the run. It’s definitely going to be a challenge for us in a bunch of different facets,” tight end Cameron Brate said. “Schematically, they’re pretty similar to some of the teams we’ve faced, so we’re just going to have to stop their big-name players and I think we will be all right.”

That’s why it’s time for this offensive line to carry this team. The Bucs have proven vets in Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen —two of the most underrated linemen in the league. Donovan Smith has his issues, but has played well over the last two weeks. Alex Cappa has really taken a step forward in his third year and Tristan Wirfs looks like he can be an All-Pro for years to come.

All five are capable of being an elite unit in this league and they’re getting better each week. People are starting to notice, too.

Football Outsiders currently ranks the Bucs’ offensive line as the 16th-best unit in terms of adjusted line yards, up from 23rd in 2019. What’s really impressive is the team’s jump in FOs’ power rank, which is a measure that evaluates a team’s short-yardage abilities on third and fourth down (exclusively runs on 3rd/4th and 2 or less). The Bucs were 30th in 2019, but have jumped all the way to first in 2020. Per Sports Info Solutions, Tampa Bay has seven carries for 27 yards on 3rd/4th and 2 or less. All seven of those runs have resulted in first downs. So far this year, Ronald Jones II (4.4 ypc) and Fournette (5.1 ypc) have combined for 4.75 yards per carry on 81% of the team’s carries.

Tampa Bay’s front five have also allowed the fifth-fewest amount of sacks (5) and has the sixth-best adjusted sack rate in the NFL. Week Four against the Chargers was the second time this year that Brady wasn’t sacked. I mentioned the group’s potential earlier, but the main key to becoming great is showing up on a consistent basis.

That needs to begin this week.

The Bucs are going to want to run the ball and they’re going to need to run the ball in order to make plays in the passing game. That won’t be easy, though, because the Bears have a stout interior and two linebackers in Danny Trevathan and Roquan Smith who are very good in run support. The Bears’ defensive line is second in FOs’ power rank and 12th in stuff rank, which is a measure of how often they stop opponents at or behind the line of scrimmage. Just for additional context, the Bucs’ offensive line is 22nd in stuff rank (the higher the ranking, the better, so not very good for the Bucs).

The Colts may have run for 108 yards, but Chicago made them earn every bit of it, evidenced by the Colts’ 2.7 yards per carry mark. Jonathan Taylor was able to find daylight here and there, but overall, it was tough sledding. And that was against one of the best offensive lines in the NFL.

And the offensive line obviously have to keep Brady upright against Mack and co., which is much easier said than done. Per Pro Football Focus, the Colts gave up a season-high 14 total pressures to the Bears last week.

The offensive line is always important in football. In my mind, you have to build your team inside-out, so it’s always a key for me. However, it’s going to be a point of emphasis for the Bucs this week. If these guys can’t get the job done, then there’s a great chance the Bears win this game and send the Bucs back to Tampa Bay with a 3-2 record.

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