TAMPA — They were supposed to be the anchors of the 2013 Buccaneers, a veteran group that would mesh up front to power an effective ground game and excel in the protection racket.
But with only two games remaining in a dreary season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ offensive line acknowledges its share of the blame for the league’s least productive attack.
“We’ve got to pick it up, and we’ve got two games left to really prove it,” said left tackle Donald Penn, a former Pro Bowler who faces the NFC’s top sacker, Rams defensive end Robert Quinn, on Sunday.
“We’re last in the league in offense and we were top 10 (ninth) last year. That’s a big drop. My season has been up and down ... and that’s not me.”
Penn, who has started 106 consecutive games, has plenty of company in that regard.
Right guard Davin Joseph has endured a challenging season coming off knee surgery. Bucs coach Greg Schiano said Joseph played his best game of the year last week against the 49ers, but Tampa Bay’s prideful captain struggled early to establish a physical presence.
When the Bucs signed Carl Nicks from New Orleans as a free agent in 2012, they thought they were getting the NFL’s premier guard in his prime. But an injured toe and a MRSA infection that recurred this fall have caused Nicks to miss 21 of a potential 30 games with Tampa Bay.
Nicks, Penn and Joseph signed lucrative, long-term contracts in recent years. The two steadiest players have been the least costly in the group — right tackle Demar Dotson and center Jeremy Zuttah.
“Demar’s been playing great football this year,” Penn said. “My hat’s off to him.”
The Bucs were routinely pushed around up front in September while averaging only 11 points per game. There have been some high points — the opening half at Seattle comes to mind — but Tampa Bay has usually lost the duel in the trenches.
“Yeah, I’d say that’s a pretty accurate assessment, an inconsistent performance,” Schiano said of the unit’s overall play. “There have been times we have played well. Kind of phasing guys in, getting them all going at the same time, that’s been a little bit choppy. But then there have been other times when we have had everybody and still not been great.”
The Bucs have started the same five players up front for seven consecutive games, with varying results. Tampa Bay has rushed for at least 140 yards in four of those games, but failed to run for more than 66 yards in the other three.
The absence of Nicks, a two-time Pro Bowler who didn’t miss a game in his final three seasons with the Saints, has been significant.
Lining up next to five different starters at left guard this season, Penn hasn’t performed up to the standard that earned him a six-year, $41.7 million contract before the 2010 season.
“I didn’t do a good job last week,” Penn said. “Aldon Smith’s a heck of a player, but I’m a good player, too. It’s frustrating. We haven’t had all five guys together for a long period of time. It’s tough, but I don’t make excuses. At the end of the day, we’ve got to get better.”
The Bucs added tight end Tom Crabtree, a solid blocker, in free agency, but he played only seven games due to an early high ankle sprain and a torn biceps that ended his season. Tampa Bay averages 115 yards on the ground with Crabtree in the lineup and 96 without him.
“When the running game doesn’t go, it’s our fault,” said Dotson, who has made significant strides in his second year as a starter. “At the end of the day, the majority of it lies on us.”
Rookie quarterback Mike Glennon (31) and Josh Freeman (seven) have been sacked a combined 38 times and Tampa Bay’s offensive line faces a stellar pass rush Sunday at St. Louis.
In addition to Quinn, a dynamic candidate for NFL Defensive Player of the Year, the Rams also boast defensive ends Chris Long (6.5 sacks) and William Hayes (5.0), who dropped Drew Brees last week in a 27-16 victory against the Saints.
The Bucs haven’t used a premium draft pick on an offensive lineman since 2008, when they selected Zuttah out of Rutgers in the third round. Given the erratic play up front this season, the Bucs could be tempted to bolster that unit early in the 2014 draft.
And with Nicks’ future uncertain, changes are likely in store for a group that has admittedly underachieved for most of the year.
“We’re not playing to our capability,” Penn said. “We do at times, but ‘at times’ gets you (4-10). ‘At times’ isn’t good enough.”