TAMPA — Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith was nearing the end of his daily post-practice news conference one day this week when he jokingly wondered out loud why no one had yet asked a question about the offensive line.
Smith quickly found out, the questions were still to come.
Four weeks after the team reported to training camp, the makeup and performance of an offensive line that has been revamped at least once already remains the area of Smith’s team that generates the most questions.
After today, Smith might finally be ready to give some solid answers.
The Bucs’ matchup against the Bills at 4:30 p.m. today at Ralph Wilson Stadium should be the offensive line’s best test of the preseason, and not just because the first-team offense is slated to play as much as three quarters of the game.
The Bills ranked second in the league last season in sacks with 57, as well as second against the run. And most of the players who made them so stingy are still on hand.
The general thought is that this game will tell the Bucs once and for all whether their line is truly capable of protecting the quarterback and opening holes in the running game, or if it needs even further revamping.
“There’s been a lot of negative hype about our O-line, but this is an opportunity for us to show what we’re capable of,’’ right tackle Demar Dotson said. “This is our chance to prove what we’re worth.’’
The line didn’t look to be worth very much during the preseason opener. In a 16-10 loss at Jacksonville, quarterback Josh McCown was pressured into two fumbles, two sacks and an interception that was returned for a touchdown — in 11 snaps.
That near disaster led to an immediate change at right guard, where veteran Jamon Meredith was benched in favor of untested second-year pro Patrick Omameh. The results have been mostly favorable.
The line improved during a 20-14 loss to the Dolphins last week, Smith said, but he’s holding final judgment until he sees the line play against Buffalo.
“Buffalo can get to the passer with its four (defensive linemen), so it will be a big challenge,’’ Smith said. “And also, with this game being on the road, this is what we need to get ready for the football season.’’
The Bucs also need the coaching staff to settle on a starting front five — if they haven’t already.
Though Smith has yet to confirm their beliefs, several members of the offensive line expect that, barring injury, the group that starts at Buffalo will start the regular season Sept. 7 against Carolina: Anthony Collins at left tackle, Oneil Cousins at left guard, Evan Dietrich-Smith at center, Omameh at right guard and Dotson at right tackle.
Then the only thing left would be for the players to develop chemistry. That process might already be under way, too.
Dietrich-Smith, who came to the Bucs as a free agent after starting 16 games with the Packers last year, said the unit has made good strides in that endeavor since Omameh was plugged in at right guard.
“We’re taking steps in the right direction, that’s for sure,’’ Dietrich-Smith said. “Having some consistency with the guys next to me is definitely helping because we’re starting to learn how to communicate with each other.
“We’re not always having to make lengthy calls anymore. You can say one word now and the guys know what you mean. So, we’re not tipping our hand as much, which is good, because it makes it harder for the defense to pick up your calls.’’
There might be a good camaraderie developing, as well. The linemen, none of which played together a year ago, are starting to do things together off the field.
“That kind of thing helps you build up trust,’’ Cousins said. “It makes you closer and that makes you better. So, the next step is to just go out there and get after it and play great and beat Buffalo.’’
If they can do that, the offensive line will finally have answered a lot of questions.