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Progress lined up for Bucs' front unit

By JOHN ROMANO, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times, published December 1, 2002

It did not take long for expectations to ebb. It was sometime, one might suppose, after Brad Johnson's first headache and last bruised rib.

By then, you knew the Bucs offensive line was not going to be good. You accepted it, you braced for it. You waited for its inevitable cost.

Yet you are here, weeks later, staring at the NFL's most gaudy record.

And so you pause to wonder:

Does the line have to be good?

Or will good enough do?

Good enough to take advantage of Johnson's knack for ball control? Good enough to ride the coattails of a dominant defense? Perhaps good enough to overcome its own shortcomings to reach the Super Bowl?

In the past three games, Tampa Bay's offensive line has dominated the Vikings, shut down Carolina's Julius Peppers and survived the Packers. The running game is pitiful, but pocket protection has been, well, passable.

"I don't know who said this, but it fits pretty well," offensive line coach Bill Muir said. "We ain't where we want to go, but thank God we aren't where we once were."

Control of the NFC South and potential homefield advantage in the postseason are at stake in today's game with New Orleans.

But there is something else to be weighed. Something far less tangible, though of great value in the locker room.

Today, there is a means to measure the line's growth. Today, there is a way to compare Tampa Bay's recent past with its hoped-for future.

In the season opener, New Orleans exposed the Bucs offensive line for all its ugliness. In the face of an assortment of blitzes, the line resembled a well-oiled, revolving door. By day's end, you had the feeling Tampa Bay's quarterback was tougher than any of his linemen.

That game established the trend for what was to come. Defenses were going to attack the Bucs until they proved they could handle the pressure.

"Once one guy has success, you're going to see it again and again," center Jeff Christy said. "This league is full of copycats."

There have since been no miracles on the line. No guard with a soul to sell. No corpulent Roy Hobbs showing up at midseason.

Tampa Bay's line has simply grown closer and more effective. Cosey Coleman has put a knee injury behind him and Kerry Jenkins has survived broken bones. Kenyatta Walker has chosen to grow up and his teammates have become more accepting. Mostly, the line has learned to function as a unit.

The days of one-on-one blocking in the NFL are mostly a thing of the past. Used to be, when the right defensive end sacked a quarterback, you always knew the left tackle was at fault. That is no longer so obvious.

Now you have defensive ends who drop back in coverage and cornerbacks willing to blitz. You have defensive linemen jumping from inside to outside or from left to right, just seconds before the snap.

The Saints, in obvious passing situations, will put three defensive ends and four linebackers in the game to maximize their speed rush.

What it all means is an offensive line must be flexible. It must recognize an unexpected defensive alignment and adjust quickly.

In Tampa Bay's case, those adjustments are even more critical because the line simply is not strong enough to overcome mistakes.

"They have to process an awful lot of information in a nanosecond," Muir said. "The quarterback has a very difficult job reading defenses, but the offensive line probably runs a close second. Communication on the line may be the most significant element, other than ability."

The Bucs have a variety of protection packages, one of which is called in the huddle. From there, it is Christy's job to make changes.

If the backs and receivers are in motion, he waits until they are set and then sees how the defense is lined up. In the second or two before the snap, Christy has the option to change the protection package.

This is where communication is critical. The rest of the line has to recognize when Christy is calling an audible and they have to adjust quickly. They also have to have faith in each other.

"You have to know where your help is coming from," Coleman said. "You have to trust the guy next to you. That's where chemistry comes from."

No one wants to use the learning curve of a new offensive system as a crutch, but everyone seems to agree they are more comfortable today. The problems early in the season, they say, were mostly mental errors.

For example?

"It was against Philadelphia, I think," Christy said. "Kerry and Roman (Oben) thought I was going to be moving one direction and I moved to the other side. It doesn't matter why now. The point is that it looked like Kerry got beat, but it was my stupid mistake that caused it."

The statistics suggest the line is improving. Through the season's first eight weeks, the Bucs averaged 2.6 sacks allowed. In the past three weeks, they have averaged 1.3 sacks.

Muir says he has little interest in the quantity of sacks because those numbers can be skewered. His greater concern is the number of times the quarterback gets hit.

A quarterback who continually gets pounded grows less confident in his line. He is less willing to wait for receivers to come open. And an uncomfortable quarterback changes the way he plays.

How does that translate for the Bucs?

In the past three weeks, Johnson has a quarterback rating of 125.3.

"You're never satisfied. We're so far from that, it isn't even an issue," Muir said. "But seeing improvement helps keep you from being disappointed. And I think it's fair to say we've seen improvement."

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