Through the first 13 games of the 2012 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offense ranks 10th in the NFL in yards per carry and seventh in sacks allowed per pass play, two of the statistics most commonly used to judge the effectiveness of an offensive line. Only one other team in the NFL – the New York Giants – ranks in the top 10 in both of those categories.
Had a Buccaneers’ fan jumped directly from March, shortly after the team signed Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks away from the New Orleans Saints, to December, he might not find that statistic too surprising. After pairing Nicks with fellow Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks and installing Jeremy Zuttah at center, his best position, the Bucs believed they had built their offensive front into one of the team’s major strengths.
Things haven’t exactly gone according to plan, however. Joseph went down with a season-ending knee injury in the preseason and Nicks followed him to injured reserve after just seven games due to a toe ailment. Right tackle Jeremy Trueblood got hurt early on, was replaced by Demar Dotson at right tackle, then later suffered his own season-ending injury. Zuttah had to move from center back to left guard, with Ted Larsen sliding in at center. Jamon Meredith, a converted tackle took over at right guard. All of those players deserve extensive kudos, but this certainly wasn’t the offensive line the Bucs were envisioning in March.
Except for the left tackle position. Rolling on towards his 90th consecutive start at that position, Donald Penn has been the anchor that has held that shifting line together. Penn himself credits first-year Offensive Line Coach Bob Bostad with maintaining continuity, as well.
“That’s kind of neat, what we’ve been able to do with so many injuries and people getting moved around,” said Penn. “My hat goes off to everyone involved. We’ve got a great O-Line coach – he puts us in the right place and we work on technique hard. A lot of technique carries over to another position if you do have to switch, as some of our guys have had to do, and that helps. He’s doing a great job of getting us ready, and scheming stuff to make it easier for us. He’s scheming things towards people’s strengths, so we have some different elements in their now, and he’s doing a good job of that. We’re just playing hard and taking it one play at a time. We’ve got our backs against the wall and we’re trying to pull everybody along.”
Like Nicks and Joseph, Penn is also a former Pro Bowler, and after a lost 2011 season that was a disappointment for the entire offense, he is once again playing at an all-star level.
Analysts use things such as rushing success and sack numbers to assess offensive lines, but even then it is difficult to separate the performance of one player from another. However, according to internal data, Penn has been personally responsible for allowing only 3.5 sacks this season. That’s a fine number made all the more impressive by the fact that he has faced a killer lineup of pass-rushing ends and 3-4 linebackers this season, from Jared Allen to John Abraham to DeMarcus Ware to Greg Hardy to Von Miller. Those pass-rushers haven’t come off the left edge on every single snap, but Penn was certainly played a big part in the overall effort to slow them down.
And he’s a big part in the team’s ability to allow just 19 sacks all season while propelling rookie RB Doug Martin to instant superstar status. The Bucs have not allowed fewer than 30 sacks in a season since 2003, and Martin has already broken the team’s rookie rushing records with 1,234 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Again, while acknowledging that he thinks he is playing at a high level, Penn prefers to spread the credit around, explaining how teammates have helped him play better. Of course, those players would likely say the same thing about what Penn has done for them.
“I wouldn’t be having such a good year if it wasn’t for Josh Freeman,” said Penn. “His pocket presence has emerged so much this year. He’s getting rid of the ball so much faster and he’s moving around well in the pocket, which makes my job easier. Plus, Doug Martin is doing such a good job running the ball, so I don’t have to pass-block all the time like we did last year when we were behind a lot. That’s helped me a lot. I’m able to mix things up and not always be one-dimensional. I think all those elements have come together to help me have a really good year.”