Midseason Report: Offensive Line

Jeremy Zuttah should be the starting center.
Jeremy Zuttah should be the starting center. /
Jeremy Zuttah should be the starting center.
Jeremy Zuttah should be the starting center. /

To say the offensive line is the heart and soul of an offense may be a bit dramatic, but it’s not entirely untrue either. A team is only as good as its line in most cases. If you can’t run the ball and protect your quarterback, you can’t win games. It’s as simple as that.

The Bucs actually have a better offensive line than I thought they did at the out-set of the season, but there are also a few trouble spots and I don’t necessarily feel they’re issues that will resolve themselves over the rest of the year. The Buccaneers offensive line is what it is at this point, its a solid but not spectacular unit that will in all likelihood need to be addressed in the offseason once again.

This past year a lot of people questioned the wisdom of spending big money on Davin Joseph and bringing back Jeremy Trueblood. Joseph was just selected to the Pro Football Weekly mid-season team and has played very well this year, Trueblood has also been solid though you would still like to see him cut down on some penalties. Both moves were solid and made the line better. Unfortunately it’s a couple of guys I came into the season counting on that have been disappointing.

The Good

Line play is incredibly subjective, a lot of people just see whatever they want. I will preface quickly by saying that I am the son of a quarterback. My father played in college at Kansas State before trying unsuccessfully to catch on with the Redskins and Jets. Since I was a kid I’ve watched football with him and he’s been attuned to the line-play as well, if not better, than anyone I have ever been around. I’m employed by the Miami Herald, I cover a football team for a living and spend my weekends in a press box around knowledgeable football minds and I’ve still never met someone who can dissect the play in the trenches on the fly more accurately than my father.

The reason I mention that is to point out I’m not talking out of my rear-end here and I’ve spent some time watching this Bucs line play.

Davin Joseph and Jeremy Zuttah, in my mind, are the best players on this line. Zuttah should be the starting center, I thought he earned that right last season when he replaced Jeff Faine and the Buccaneers line played better as a unit. If you watch Zuttah, or even if you just look at how he grades out in terms of metrics, you see a very intelligent, efficient blocker who can handle both pass-blocking and run-blocking responsibilities at several positions.

Zuttah and Joseph, who needs little introduction, are the best blockers on the line and should be around for years to come. There’s not a problem there. And as I’ve said Jeremy Trueblood has been solid. I like him more as a run-blocker than in pass-pro, but he’s not a guy that I feel holds the line back. The problem is the other two…

The Bad

Jeff Faine and Donald Penn are overpaid and overrated. Faine, frankly, is a marginal player who is probably more just overpaid. He can play good games but I also see a lot of blown assignments from him. Watch how often a team will blow up a play in the middle of the line and then watch Faine block the wrong man. It happens with regularity. Either Faine is wrong or the rest of the line blew the call, I’m going to bet the problem was with the center. Faine isn’t a major problem, but he’s also not a guy I see as a part of the Bucs’ future plans. He’s 30, I think Zuttah is actually the better center and if the Bucs are going to have MA’s and mental errors on their line I’d rather they come because a young guy like Ted Larsen or James Lee is in the game than have them coming from a veteran.

Donald Penn might be my least favorite player on the entire Buccaneers roster. Don’t listen to the Pro Bowler title that comes with him, he lobbied for that and made it as like a fifth alternate. He’s no pro bowler. As you’ve seen time and again during his tenure with the Bucs, an elite speed rusher can make easy work of Penn. The Bucs have done a good job of trying to hide this deficiency, but when left one-on-one with even an above average edge rusher, Penn can be beat regularly.

The other problem I have with Penn is he’s not a great run-blocker, the bulk of the Bucs rushing success comes behind the right side of their line with Joseph and Trueblood. Donald Penn isn’t a mauler on the ground, he’s above average to average, which is fine except the Bucs have long-term dollars tied up in him. He talks about himself like he’s an elite left tackle, its almost like the Bucs actually believe him. The problem is he’s not even close to elite. Jake Long is elite, Joe Thomas is elite, Donald Penn shouldn’t even have his name in this sentence.

The issue is Penn and Faine are here to stay. And don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of lineman who are much worse, but these aren’t the kinds of players you traditionally want to build around and the Bucs have them both signed up long-term.

The Bottom Line

The Bucs offensive line is above average. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that they’re awful or anything. In fact Josh Freeman has taken just ten sacks through eight games. But that can also be misleading because of Freeman’s mobility and size. The bigger issue has been establishing a consistent running game, though admittedly a large part of that has been the health of the backs and the play-calling as well.

The Bucs line is a solid group, but it can still improve. The question is whether or not it can improve with the current group of players its has starting.