How will Bucs tackles protect Tom Brady from Nick Bosa, 49ers pass rush?
Facing the NFL’s No. 1 defense in points and yards allowed is never easy, but the Bucs will do so Sunday against the 49ers without their best offensive tackle, and as their other tackle struggles with sacks and penalties.
Tristan Wirfs, an All-Pro and Pro Bowl selection in just his second season last year, will miss a second straight game with an ankle injury, pressing backup Josh Wells into duty. At left tackle, the Bucs have Donovan Smith, who leads all NFL offensive players with 75 yards in penalties.
On any given snap, one of them will likely be tasked with stopping 49ers pass-rusher Nick Bosa, the current NFC Defensive Player of the Week who leads the NFL with 14.5 sacks and could challenge the league’s single-season record of 22.5. Protecting quarterback Tom Brady at age 45 is a priority, and Bosa has been held without a sack just once in the entire 2022 season.
“He’s a hell of a player,” Bucs offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich said Thursday. “Strong, has a motor, physical, really good football player. It’ll be a tough task but we’re excited to have the opportunity to play against a team like this.”
There’s a chance the Bucs will get a reprieve from facing Bosa, as he missed practice on Wednesday and Thursday with a hamstring injury. No other 49ers player has more than four sacks this season, so that would make life significantly easier Sunday for the two tackles.
Smith nearly cost the Bucs a victory on Monday night, as they rallied back from a 16-3 deficit midway through the fourth quarter. Brady looked to have thrown the go-ahead touchdown pass to Chris Godwin with 15 seconds left, but Smith was flagged for holding, grabbing Saints pass-rusher Marcus Davenport as he went after Brady. The Bucs overcame the penalty and won the game with three seconds left, but coach Todd Bowles said Smith understands the need for more consistent play.
“It’s a concern,” Bowles said. “He knows he didn’t play his best game. We know he didn’t play his best game. He’ll bounce back from it. He understands that. We expect more from him and he expects more from himself.”
A week earlier, Smith struggled down the stretch in a close game at Cleveland that saw the Brown rally to force overtime and then win there. Smith had a false start on a third down in the fourth quarter, leading to a punt, and gave up a sack to Myles Garrett late in the fourth quarter, setting up a punt and the Browns’ tying touchdown drive. In overtime, he negated a first-down throw in Browns territory with an illegal-use-of-hands penalty as he tried to handle Garrett.
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Grades are by their nature subjective, but by Pro Football Focus analysis, Smith is having the worst season of his nine-year NFL career. A year ago, he was rated 14th out of 83 eligible tackles, in the top 20 percent of his position, but this year, he’s rated 70th out of 77 tackles. He had no penalties in the first six games this season, but has committed nine since Week 7 — no other Bucs player has more than four all season.
“It’s tough facing some tough guys in this league,” Leftwich said. “He’s (not) the only one that’s getting holding calls at that position. That’s just part of it. But we try to coach through it and try to get better at it … You just talk to him a lot about technique. ‘Hey, let’s make sure we’re technique sound and make sure we’re aware of what’s happening and how we’re getting beat.”
Wells, 31, has been here before — this is his 13th fill-in start in four seasons in Tampa and his 10th in the past two seasons, subbing in for both Wirfs and Smith as needed. Under the circumstances, Bucs coaches were happy with how he held up playing every snap in Monday’s win against the Saints.
“He fought … he got his body in the way sometimes,” Bowles said. “Technically, he wasn’t always fundamentally right, but I thought he played a tough game, he played a smart game and he played a solid game. He held them off just enough at times for us to make some plays. I was pleased with the way he played”
In part thanks to Brady getting rid of the ball extremely quickly, the Bucs have given up the lowest sack percentage in the NFL this season, on just 3.4 percent of their dropbacks, up slightly from a league-best 3.2 percent last year.
Bosa has never faced Brady before — he made his NFL debut against the Bucs in 2019 and got his first career sack in Tampa in bringing down Jameis Winston. Brady joked with him on social media, asking him to “be nice Sunday” in an Instagram comment this week.
“It’s exciting. It’s going to be a tough one,” Bosa said on the field after last week’s win against the Dolphins. “Obviously, he’s the best ever, so we’ll get back to work after we enjoy this for a little bit.”
Greg Auman is FOX Sports’ NFC South reporter, covering the Buccaneers, Falcons, Panthers and Saints. He is in his 10th season covering the Bucs and the NFL full-time, having spent time at the Tampa Bay Times and The Athletic. You can follow him on Twitter at @gregauman.
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