TAMPA — Buccaneers coach Lovie Smith walked into his press conference the day after Tampa Bay's preseason opener against Jacksonville 10 days ago wearing a frown.
On Sunday, when he walked into the One Buc Place dining room for a casual sit-down with reporters the day after the Bucs preseason home opener against Miami, that frown was gone.
That's what seeing your team improve in the area that has been the biggest cause for concern since the preseason started will do for a coach. It will take the frown off his face.
“The offensive line got better (Saturday) night,'' Smith said of a unit that was largely responsible for two quarterback sacks, two fumbles and three penalties in a 16-10 loss to the Jaguars. “That group held its own.''
Inside that group, two players held up during the 20-14 loss to Miami at positions that have drawn mostly scrutiny. One was right guard Patrick Omameh. The other was left guard Oneil Cousins.
Bucs fans may want to get used to those names.
Though Smith had yet to talk to his team and therefore was not in a position to reveal plans for the coming week or beyond, Omameh and Cousins appear to have earned a longer look with the first team.
“I think he held up,'' Smith said of Omameh, the second-year pro out of Michigan who made his first start ahead of Jamon Meredith, the veteran who was benched for his play at Jacksonville.
“And when I say he played well, I'm talking about all the things that we asked him to do,'' Smith added. “Inside you have to be able to (win) one-on-one blocks versus the run and versus the pass.
“And our quarterbacks, we held on to a couple of balls, but for the most part they were able to get the protection and the time (they needed) to hit the receiver. And Patrick was a part of that.
“I mean, last week the guards were at the top of our mind because of that constant quick pressure inside, and he really didn't allow that (against Miami). And that was his first time out.''
It was the second time out as a starter for Cousins, the career backup whom the Bucs signed in free agency last March, and for the second time Smith seemed to find favor in the seven-year veteran's play.
“He played pretty solid ball,'' Smith said. “And for Oneil to be in there for two weeks, well that kind of tells you we think we know what he is for the most part. Like I said, he's played solid ball.''
Omameh and Cousins weren't the only linemen earning praise. Though right tackle Demar Dotson's plays appeared to slip a little, Smith said he was pleased with the play of left tackle Anthony Collins and center Evan Dietrich-Smith.
“They gave us the opportunity to run the ball a little bit better than we did the previous week also,'' Smith said of the line. “We had holes. But I (also) feel like we left some plays out there on the football field.''
None was bigger than the apparent 42-yard touchdown pass that was called back after replays revealed that cornerback Brent Grimes had successfully stripped rookie wide receiver Mike Evans of the ball as he crossed the goal line.
Smith didn't have much praise for his second- and third-teamers either, a group that was outscored 17-7 over the final three quarters of play. As for the starters, though, he was pretty happy all the way around.
“I felt like our ones definitely held their own,'' Smith said as he and his staff began to prepare for the one week in the preseason that most accurately mirrors a week during the regular-season.
Against Buffalo on Saturday, Smith said the starters can expect to play at least the first half and probably into the second. That may be a good thing, because several backups are banged up.
Defensive end William Gholston (shoulder) and running back Mike James (shoulder) probably won't play this week, Smith said. The status of defensive lineman Da'Quan Bowers (groin), cornerback Mike Jenkins (leg) and safety Major Wright (back) is also uncertain.
On the other hand, Smith believes cornerback Alterraun Verner (hamstring) has a chance to make his preseason debut against Buffalo. But the situation at running back, where the Bucs have already lost rookie Charles Sims to an ankle injury, suddenly has Smith concerned.
“We're not in as good a shape right now as we were before,'' Smith said. “We're definitely thin at running back now.''