Posted by Scouts Inc.'s Matt Williamson
It might go overlooked by the casual fan, but Tampa Bay's interior offensive line is paying great dividends -- and deserves mention as the NFL's best. Centers and guards who are drafted by the middle of the second round rarely fail to pan out, which is holding true for center Jeff Faine, left guard Arron Sears and right guard Davin Joseph.
If you're wondering how a backfield of Earnest Graham (a former undrafted free agent) and Warrick Dunn (age 33) can place the Buccaneers among the league's top 10 in rushing yards per game (130.4) and per carry (4.5), look no further than the above trio. Faine, Sears and Joseph also have helped keep Tampa Bay among the league leaders in sack rate, despite providing protection for two very different quarterbacks. It wasn't reflected in the Bucs' rushing totals Sunday, but the line utterly dominated the Seahawks' defensive front, allowing Jeff Garcia to throw for 310 yards and helping the offense maintain possession for nearly 42 minutes.
Everything starts with the interior threesome. The Bucs' offensive tackles aren't nearly as talented or productive, but the team is able to give them a lot of help from tight ends and running backs because the blocking inside is so solid. Coach Jon Gruden uses a lot of multiple-tight end sets (especially near the goal line), often double-teaming defensive ends on run and pass plays. The entire offensive line is very rugged and takes the approach of putting opponents on their backs on every snap.
Faine, the league's highest-paid center, has proved to be worth every penny the Bucs spent on him in free agency in the offseason. Though undersized, Faine is very smart and makes not only the line calls but recognizes the second and third level as part of his protection-calling assignments. He lacks overpowering bulk, but his technique is very good. He gets low, uses his hands effectively and takes sound blocking angles. He is especially effective on combination blocks, using his agility and athleticism to wall off or bury smaller defenders on the second level. Because he can pinpoint and hit a target upfield, Faine is a big reason why the Bucs can use more man blocking schemes.
The guards, though much bigger than Faine, aren't liabilities in space. Finally healthy, Joseph is proving to be the best player among this trio -- and possibly one of the top three guards in this league. He is a solid technique player (which has been especially evident since Faine's arrival), but his physical gifts are even more impressive. Joseph is extremely powerful, quick and plays with excellent leverage. He has the natural ability to bend his knees and hit on the rise. He's nasty too. Sears is a converted college tackle who has been a bit of a project, but his short pulls are devastating. Running to the right behind a Faine/Joseph double-team, with one of them working up to the second level and Sears coming around on a short pull is as close to money in the bank as you can get in the NFL. The Bucs consistently convert in short-yardage situations and pop four yards on first down on such plays.
The scary thing is, for Faine (27), Joseph (24) and Sears (23) the best seems to be yet to come. The combination of this trio's physical ability and tenacity gives the Bucs exceptional play-calling flexibility and separates them from the rest of the NFL's interior units.
Scouts Inc. watches games, breaks down film and studies football from all angles for ESPN.com.