Ground woes in finale are discouraging
Of all the culprits in Tampa Bay's 3-13 season of despair, an underachieving offensive line deserves special mention. A sputtering ground game undermined the Bucs for much of the year, and Sunday's 20-10 loss to Atlanta offered fresh evidence that Tampa Bay's persistent rushing woes must be addressed in the offseason.

"We would have liked to have gone out on a better note, that's for sure," right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said after the Falcons limited the Bucs to 38 yards in 22 rushing attempts. "Today was really disheartening. Cadillac (Williams) ran hard, but we wanted to get him more yards - he deserves it."

One week after gouging New Orleans for 129 yards, Williams found defenders prowling in his backfield all day, averaging only 2.1 yards in his 19 carries. "I have a bitter taste in my mouth," said Williams, who finished his inspiring comeback season with 821 yards. "At the same time, it is a blessing to have played in all 16 games for the first time in my career."

Under new position coach Pete Mangurian, Tampa Bay's offensive line struggled for much of the year, failing to live up to preseason hype lauding the unit as a team strength, despite the absence of guard Arron Sears for personal reasons.

"We had too many ups and downs as a group up front," right guard Davin Joseph said. "We have a smart group of guys with a lot of room to grow, but we didn't play like we expected."

The Bucs had averaged 128 yards on the ground and 4.4 yards per carry in their previous four games before Atlanta whipped them repeatedly up front. "There's no doubt about it - our rushing defense was outstanding today," Falcons coach Mike Smith said. "We wanted to knock the line of scrimmage back a few yards and that's exactly what we did."

Sunday's game marked the eighth time this season that Tampa Bay's run game failed to reach the modest 90-yard plateau. "You guys (media) put this offensive line on such a high pedestal last year, but if you look at the stats, we rushed for about the same amount of yards we rushed for last year," said Raheem Morris, whose team gained 1,625 yards on the ground this season (the 2008 Bucs gained 1,837). "We gave up the same amount of sacks we did last year (33 this season, and 32 in 2008). I just think we got to get better overall."

Atlanta's defense pushed the Bucs around right from the start. When a fumbled opening kickoff set Tampa Bay up at the Falcons' 28, John Abraham immediately stuffed Williams for a 4-yard loss, a harbinger of what was to come as he had his way with normally solid left tackle Donald Penn.

"We saw what they did to the Saints last week, so everybody's mind-set was to stop their running game," Atlanta middle linebacker Curtis Lofton said. "Our guys up front did a great job of keeping Tampa's linemen off me."

Even if Sears returns in 2010, it is clear the Bucs must get stronger at the point of attack. "I think we made some progress as a group," said Jeremy Zuttah, who replaced Sears as the starter at left guard. "But too often this season, it was two steps up, one step back."

Ira Kaufman, The Tampa Tribune/The St.Petersburg Times January 2010