Coming into the 2012 NFL season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers committed big money to a trio of big name free agents. Vincent Jackson would prove to be well worth the outlay, giving the Bucs an offensive weapon they haven’t had in quite some time. Eric Wright proved to be not at all worth the cost, finding himself either injured or suspended for most of the season, and failing to impress at any other time. As is the case with most things in life, there was a balance with the third signing. Carl Nicks, a guard signed to a massive contract from the rival Saints, would be a solid contributor who would be forced to bow out early due to a foot injury. This would come just a couple of months after team captain right guard Davin Joseph suffered a gruesome knee injury in the preseason and would not see the field for the rest of the year. Veteran tackle Jeremy Trueblood would lose his job after week one. Jeremy Zuttah would be forced to change positions. As a result of all these incidents, the Buccaneers offensive line was in disarray for most of the year. This almost seems like the setup for an offensive line horror story, doesn’t it?
I’m happy to report it is not.
As most Buccaneer fans know, the offensive line for our Pewter Pirates was actually pretty solid this year, all things considered. Only one player started every game at his original position (Donald Penn), but the line showed consistent effort game after game. Strangely enough, one of the best run blocking performances of the year came days after Carl Nicks was added to the injured reserve with his foot injury. The game against Oakland, in which Doug Martin ran wild and rewrote Tampa Bay record books for running backs, was played with a makeshift offensive line featuring Jamon Meredith, Damar Dotson, and Ted Larsen, three names Bucs fans could have never foreseen leading the way for the best running performance in Buccaneer history. So what made the Buccaneers offensive line so productive?
A good portion of the success can be attributed to the playcalling. The majority of plays in the run game focused on running behind Donald Penn and Carl Nicks, which meant to the left side of the offense. After Nicks was sidelined, the decision was made to move Jeremy Zuttah to left guard, and the strength of the line remained on the left side. As a result, the Buccaneers had the second best rushing numbers when running off left tackle, according to FootballOutsiders.com. They were a top 10 rushing offense when running outside of the left tackle, but weaker when running up the middle, or to the right at all. The obvious difference in success between sides of the offensive line was noticed by Mike Sullivan, who allowed Doug Martin to run to the strong side more often than not. According to ESPN.com’s splits for the 2012 season, Doug Martin rushed over 150 times to the left side of the field, and only 89 to the right side. Martin averaged 5.2 yards when running left, but only 4.2 when running up the middle. 4.2 yards per carry is a respectable number, but it’s obvious that Martin could have had even bigger numbers with a bit more help. And some of the plays designed to go right were draw plays that Martin was able to cut back to the left, like his first big run of the game against the Minnesota Vikings.
Martin gave a kick start to what many experts considered his breakout game in the middle of the first quarter, taking a designed draw play heading right behind Jamon Meredith, and instead allows Erik Lorig to occupy a linebacker and cuts behind him, heading left and taking off for a big gain. On the play, Donald Penn allowed Jared Allen upfield, and then stayed between his man and the ballcarrier. Jeremy Zuttah surged upfield and sealed Letroy Guion up, allowing Martin to cut behind Zuttah and explode into the second level. Martin would have many more big runs in the following weeks, but that run against the Vikings on national TV was the start of a great stretch of running for the Buccaneer rookie.
Using the same stats as we did earlier from FootballOutsiders, we see that the Buccaneers graded out very well in pass protection, as well, allowing only 26 sacks and an adjusted sack rate of 4.8%, one of only 7 teams under 5%. ProFootballFocus graded the offensive line collectively as a middle of the pack unit, ranking 16th in the league. This is mainly due to the performance of Jamon Meredith, as PFF ranks Donald Penn, Carl Nicks, and Demar Dotson very well. PFF also notes that the Buccaneers offensive line allowed only 14 sacks, meaning the 12 other sacks that the team allowed were the responsibility of backs or tight ends. This is an impressive statistic, but there were some issues with the Buccaneers pass protection. The Buccaneers offensive line allowed the 5th most hits to the quarterback in 2012, and while this isn’t that far ahead of the league average, it does show that the line gave Josh Freeman just enough time to throw, and didn’t always provide the time needed to allow plays to develop. The Bucs O-Line was 13th in QB hurries allowed, as well, further supporting the idea that the pass protection was good, but could have given Freeman better circumstances to work under.
Jeremy Zuttah and Ted Larsen receive good enough grades (from ProFootballFocus) in pass blocking, but fall short in run blocking. This is reflected in the yards the Buccaneers gained up the middle as opposed to to the outside. Damar Dotson and Donald Penn both received great grades in pass blocking, with Penn showing exceptional numbers in run blocking as well. As mentioned earlier, Jamon Meredith was the weakest link, posting low scores in both running and passing protection.
So what was Meredith doing so poorly? Watching the tape, you can see his 79 jersey turned sideways quite often, chasing down opposing players who blew past him. This is expected of a young tackle, which Meredith technically is, but considering the fact that he was playing guard, it is real cause for concern. Meredith was likely the reason for many of the QB hits delivered to Josh Freeman, as he would frequently fall victim to power and speed moves of interior pass rushers. Meredith was called upon to pull as a guard from time-to-time, as well, and would often find himself blocking no one, or overrunning his assigned gap and whiffing. In fact, in the games I went back to watch, an off-balance Meredith flailing after a missed block was a fairly common sight. Meredith did improve as the season wore on, and will likely be a solid backup for the Buccaneers in 2013 thanks to his newfound versatility, but he is obviously not quite ready to be a starter in the NFL.
The bigest concern for the Buccaneers offensive line was not Meredith, surprisingly enough. The lack of discipline was the most frustrating element of the 2012 Bucs O-Line, with Dotson, Zuttah, and (most frequently) Ted Larsen racking up penalties all season long, stalling out drives and canceling out productive plays. ProFootballFocus grades a player’s penalty impact as well, and Larsen was the second lowest ranked center in the league in terms of how his penalties impacted his team. Both Dotson and Zuttah had somewhat poor numbers in this area, but neither compared to the rage-inducing mistakes made by Larsen. I have been harsh on Larsen in the past, and based on these numbers I am somewhat justified. He did perform well despite being moved around on the offensive line, however, and will be a key backup for the Buccaneers in 2013.
Moving outside the tackles, we find the tight ends. Tight end is a position that did not receive much fanfare in the 2012 season for the Buccaneers, but the impact these players had should not be completely disregarded. Dallas Clark was brought in as a veteran presence at the position, but it would be the play of Luke Stocker that impressed me the most. Stocker was a solid contributor to the run blocking game, helping Donald Penn and Demar Dotson seal the edge and provide lanes for Doug Martin to run through. Stocker would see the field almost as often as Clark, and while he failed to make an impression as a receiver, he will be a key piece of the Buccaneer running game for years to come. His blocking counterpart, Nate Byham, also fared well in 2012 as a blocking tight end. Dallas Clark did not contribute to the blocking aspect of the offense, but did chip in a decent amount of catches and yards, and scored 4 touchdowns. Overall, the position was somewhat unremarkable in 2012, but the promise of the young blocking tight ends should excite Buccaneer fans anxious to see Doug Martin running wild in 2013 and beyond.
So how do these positions grade out?
Offensive Line: B-
Tight End: C