Winston back, but his offensive line is rebuilt

by Gary Shelton on November 30, 2017 · 1 comment

in general, NFL, Tampa Bay Bucs

Winston returns to the lineup this weekend./CARMEN MANDATO

Winston returns to the lineup this weekend./CARMEN MANDATO

Thursday, 2 a.m.

When quarterback Jameis Winston returns to the field Sunday, he might not recognize all the faces in his huddle.

Gone is center Ali Marpet (injured).

Gone is tackle Demar Dotson (injured).

Gone is tight end Luke Stocker (released).

Gone may be running back Doug Martin (concussion).

And so it goes. The NFL is a game of attrition, and the Bucs seem to be losing players daily. That might make Sunday's journey to Lambeau Field a bit more daunting.

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Marpet had played well for three weeks ./CARMEN MANDATO

Marpet had played well for three weeks ./CARMEN MANDATO

The Bucs, 4-7, have already struggled through most of the season. Winston, for instance, has missed three straight weeks (and faced ugly charges that he groped an Uber driver).

“We are still taking it day-to-day, but he took the majority of the reps out there today," coach Dirk Koetter said. "(He) threw the football fine. His arm strength was fine. I don’t think any guy that plays a skill position like that where timing is involved is going to take three weeks off and going to be perfect on the first day, but we will see how the week goes.”

The Bucs will have to play without Dotson./ANDREW J. KRAMER

The Bucs will have to play without Dotson./ANDREW J. KRAMER

Regardless, Koetter said, Winston will start.

“Jameis is going to start on Sunday," Koetter said. "Any player that is ever back practicing, when have we ever not done that? When does a player not come back and (return to being) a starter that week.”

And the fans who don’t believe that Winston should start over backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick?

“In my call-in poll — when I talked to all 70,000 of them — it was 45,000 to 38,995 in favor (of Winston),” Koetter said, botching the math a bit.

“It’s a league where if you are healthy, you will play," Koetter said. "It’s all around the league. The risk factor — that’s there every week at every position. When your medical staff clears any player for any injury to play, they are not going to clear him (if he isn’t healthy) — the players health is always the number one thing for every football team. If a player is at no more risk than what the normal risk is — and in the NFL, that’s substantial — then they are going to play. That is what they’re paid to do.”

Koetter said Winston is no more at risk than if he hadn't been injured. Of course, with 40 percent of his line missing, Winston will probably get hit some.

"You’re tested at different positions on your depth at different times of the year," Koetter said. "We have not been tested on the offensive line. We felt like we do have some depth. It just hasn’t been tested yet. As you just mentioned, Evan Smith (and) Joe Hawley have been starters before. Caleb Benenoch started a game or two last year. You’re taking out two guys that are playing good for us and our depth will certainly be tested.”

Stocker didn't do much in the receiving part of the game, but he was a dependable blocker.

“When you have to make roster moves, there is almost always other issues based on who is hurt at other positions, who you have to get up (and who you can get on the practice squad," Koetter said. "One thing triggers another. We’ve got a couple guys in concussion protocol. We had to put a couple guys on IR and you have to make some hard decisions. It’s never fun to let go of a guy like Luke Stocker. He is a glue guy. He is an excellent person and he’s been a good player for us. Those aren’t fun days, but that’s the business side of the NFL. When you only have 53 and you’ve played 11-straight weeks and you’ve got some guys that are going to be out or some guys that are in concussion protocol or on IR, you’ve got to make some roster moves and you have to have certain depth at every position. Those type of things are the result of that.”

Koetter said that both Marpet and Dotson have played well.

“As far as Ali goes, I think he played his best football the last two weeks of the season,' Koetter said. "As far as Demar Dotson goes, I think Dot – in my three seasons here — had his best season overall. I think Dot was holding down the right tackle spot well, especially in pass protection. It’s disappointing that you take two guys that are playing well on a team that needs more consistent play and they are out, but that is the worst part of this game and something that is uncontrollable (are) injuries.”

Defensive coordinator Mike Smith said the Bucs planned to blitz more on Sunday against Atlanta.

“We went into the game plan — that didn’t pan out like we wanted to — to blitz more," Smith said. "We did. We had some efficiency, but we didn’t get the pressure on the quarterback like we needed to when we were sending not a full-out blitz at them. You’ve got to be able to work together in terms of putting pressure on the quarterback and being able to cover. I’ve been on the other side of this as well. I’ve seen Julio [Jones] go off and have a great game. It’s on me. There is no way about it. I’ve got to do a better job of getting these guys in the position to play. Statistically, we are not very good. The great thing is these guys have a great work ethic, they don’t quit, they come and give you everything they’ve got and we’re looking forward to getting back out there on the field. When you have an outing like that, the taste in your mouth is terrible and you can’t wait. Sunday can’t get here fast enough. I don’t care if it’s minus 10 [degrees] in Green Bay. We’re going to go get an opportunity to play again and hopefully fix some of the issues that we’ve had.”

Defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was looking forward to playing against Green Bay starter Aaron Rodgers, who is out with an injury.

“I’ve never played there (Lambeau)," McCoy said. "I’ve never even played against the Packers and I say it all the time, Aaron Rodgers is my favorite player. Every time I have an opportunity to play against him something happens. Either I’m injured or now he’s injured. I was really looking forward to getting to play against him, but I’m a historian and the Packers are just one of those teams. When you say the Packers, it’s like, ‘Man, this is the Green Bay Packers. It’s Lambeau Field.’ I’m so excited. I was a fan of the NFL before I became a player in the NFL, so this was one of those ones where I am really excited as a fan to just go see it and be a part of it. It’s something I’ll always remember.”

The Bucs play at Green Bay on Sunday at 1 p.m.

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