In Dallas the Buccaneers came just seven points shy of their biggest win in years, and their impressive five game winning streak came to a close. The Bucs put some positive plays on tape throughout the game but ultimately they showed Jason Licht that he has some work to do this off-season.
I’m not sure what it is exactly that makes Sunday night football so much fun to watch, but it’s truly my favorite time to watch the game played. Something about the stage and the spotlight tends to make star players bring their A-game, and it’s awesome to watch the best of the best play at their best. While Sunday night can highlight the best parts of the game, it also identifies the uglier, less refined side. This was just the case with the Buccaneers this week, who, despite keeping the score tight, were sunk by the few glaring weaknesses that they have.
The Bucs don’t have a bad roster by any means. Their defense and special teams have played terrific football during the second half of the season and carried the team for much of their winning streak. The offense, while lacking sorely in a few areas (more on that in a sec), still has several very good players. For these reasons the Bucs are able to be in a December playoff hunt. It is the faults that killed them against the Cowboys – primarily the offensive line – that will keep them from winning a playoff game this season.
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To have any chance at beating Dallas the Buccaneers had to win in the trenches consistently on both offense and defense. On offense they needed to establish a strong running game behind Doug Martin in order to give the defense as much time to rest as possible against a physical Cowboy attack. As has happened so many times this season, the Bucs offensive line simply didn’t allow this game plan to take place.
Even with Demar Dotson in the line-up the Bucs line has still been mediocre at best, and with him out and Gosder Cherilus in on Sunday night it was nothing short of a blood bath. The veteran right tackle was abused by little-known David Irving, including on the final drive of the game when the Bucs had a chance to win with a touchdown (In Cherilus’ defense, much of line struggled on the day and on that play).
On a separate play, the Bucs had a well executed screen in place where Charles Sims caught the ball and followed two blockers (Brate and Cherilus) with only two defenders to block. If you don’t recall what happened next, see the tweet below.
On the game Jameis Winston was sacked four times, but he was under constant duress and was never able to get into a proper rhythm. Last season the Buccaneer line was able to make up for shaky pass protection with strong run blocking, but that simply hasn’t been the case this year or against the Cowboys, where Doug Martin ran for just 42 yards despite 16 attempts.
The continued struggles of the line puts Jason Licht at an important crossroads this off-season. He can go the way of Colts general manager Ryan Grigson who chose to ignore the offensive line and instead overload his quarterback with skill position players. Or he can follow the wisdom of (dear God I cannot believe I’m going to type this but here we go) the Raiders front office and their general manager, Reggie McKenzie, who decided that protecting their quarterback is just as important as arming him with weapons. That strategy has paid off for the 11-3 Raiders.
Re-building the Bucs offensive line should be mission number one for Jason Licht and I think he’ll discover it’s far less daunting a task than it appears. The team has three young pieces in place already in Marpet (23), Smith (23), and Sweezy (27), and though they’re not an impressive trio together, they’re at least three less pieces that the Bucs need to immediately add. It’s realistic for the Bucs to add a new center while keeping Joe Hawley as a back-up, and then adding a new right tackle to compete and/or replace Demar Dotson.
With the Bucs desire to feed Doug Martin and accumulate chunk yardage through the air, they absolutely need a functioning offensive line in order to unlock the next level of their offense. Luckily for them, between the draft, free agency, and the return of J.R. Sweezy, the team has more than enough resources to put forward a remade offensive line in 2017. Not only that, but they will be able to fix their lack of play-making receivers which once again reared it’s ugly head against the Cowboys.