On Tuesday, we welcomed you to “Unsung Hero Week” here in the Captain’s Blog, singing the praises of under-the-radar fullback Erik Lorig. Today we continue with another player who toils at a position with few statistics but great impact on the game’s outcome.
The Buccaneers’ offensive line as a whole could be labeled an Unsung Hero, especially since Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks were lost to season-ending injuries. Joseph and Nicks were 2011 Pro Bowlers, so it’s a little difficult to claim that they escaped national attention. At the same time, the Bucs’ offense was expected to take a hit with the loss of those two players, and instead it has continued to chug along at an impressive pace. There are plenty of surprising contributors, including right tackle Demar Dotson and right guard Jamon Meredith, but it may be Zuttah who has done the most to hold the line together.
Now in his fifth NFL season, Zuttah seemed to gain something in 2012 that he had long hoped for: positional stability. A hugely valuable jack-of-all-blocking-trades, Zuttah had spent most of his first four seasons filling in wherever the Bucs needed him most, from left guard to right guard to center. When the Bucs brought in Nicks in March, they also released Jeff Faine with the intention of installing Zuttah at center, which is considered his most natural position. And that plan was in effect, until a toe injury ended Nicks’ season early. Without Nicks, the coaching staff believed that their best lineup included Zuttah taking over at left guard and Ted Larsen stepping in at center.
So Zuttah had to sacrifice for the team again. All he has done in the two games since is have two of his most obviously outstanding performances in awhile, especially in stonewalling DT Richard Seymour in Oakland in Week Nine.
“The thing we talk about all the time around here is being an unselfish teammate; that’s what I think Jeremy has done,” said Head Coach Greg Schiano. “He finally got the chance to be the center, he’s moving along and having a good year, all of a sudden the best thing for the team is to move back to guard. Trust me, I’ve known the kid a long time, he did not want to do that, but he did it for the team. Really, he’s played well. Richard Seymour, that guy is big, strong…that was a physical game. So then he comes in this week and plays well again and another physical game.”
Offensive linemen don’t get extensive stat lines to measure against each other. Their success is found in how the offense operates overall, especially in terms of rushing yards and sacks (or lack thereof). Especially given the injuries, one could hardly ask for the Bucs to do better in those categories in 2012. Tampa Bay ranks 11th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, sixth in yards per carry and ninth in sacks allowed per pass play. Not once this season has Josh Freeman been sacked more than twice in a game.
The Bucs have been particularly efficient in the last five weeks, averaging 437 yards and 36 points per game in that span. LT Donald Penn, the team’s only opening-day offensive line starter still in the same spot, says the play of Jeremy Zuttah is critical in keeping that hot streak going.
“He’s playing great football for us, and I think last week was one of the best games he’s had all year, and that was at guard,” said Penn. “Zute’s doing a good job of filling in. He’s playing his part, he’s doing better than what we probably would ask for. He’s doing a great job and my hat’s off to him. He needs to keep playing like that for us to be as good of a team as we are.”