Perhaps quietly, the offensive line has been one of Tampa Bay's strongest position units throughout the 2020 season. That line took a big hit when right guard Alex Cappa went down with a fractured ankle in the Wild Card round of the playoffs.
The last time the Buccaneers lost a starting guard to injury, it was Ali Marpet, and as depth pieces stepped into a starting role for three games, Tampa Bay's starting five as a whole took a step backward. Now, Marpet has been one of the NFL's top interior lineman this season so the drop-off may not be as significant, but Cappa has been playing some good ball as well.
When Marpet went down, Tampa Bay moved Joe Haeg and then A.Q. Shipley into the starting lineup. Haeg struggled significantly and was benched, leading Shipley to start at center while Ryan Jensen bumped over to Marpet's spot. The line improved compared to its play with Haeg, until Shipley suffered a career-ending neck injury.
So, when Cappa suffered his injury on Saturday, the Bucs looked to Ted Larsen. Allowing a sack and two pressures (PFF), Larsen, too, didn't play all that well as a reserve-turned-starter. That leaves Aaron Stinnie as the next man up. And despite being the fourth option on the interior this season, Tampa Bay believes he can get the job done.
"We like the way [Stinnie] plays the game," said offensive coordinator Byron Leftwich on Thursday. "Obviously, it hurts us any time you lose a guy like Cap... That’s tough, but that is football. We believe in Stinnie – I believe he’ll be ready to roll. He works his tail off every day, he’s a physical guy."
Stinnie, 26, is in his fourth NFL season but has no starts under his belt, appearing in just 12 career games. He played just 30 snaps on the Buccaneers offensive line this season, although he did not give up a sack or quarterback pressure in that limited action, per Pro Football Focus.
This is Stinnie's second season with Tampa Bay, after beginning his career with the Tennessee Titans. Now familiar with head coach Bruce Arians' offensive system and after having put the work in, Stinnie is ready to prove his worth when the Bucs need him to most.
“To do this, when you’re in that backup role, you’re pretty much preparing the whole year for a moment like this," said Stinnie. "You always want to prepare yourself as though you are going to be the starter that week, so that there is no surprise or shock to yourself when that moment [comes] that you have to go in."
It won't be an easy task for Stinnie in his first career start. Tampa Bay will face the New Orleans Saints on Sunday, who tallied 45 sacks during the 2020 season and own the NFL's No. 5 passing defense. Five of those sacks came in two previous matchups against the Buccaneers.
Jensen, an eight-year pro and three-year starter for the Bucs, believes Stinnie is up for it, however. He offered some perspective of his own in order to prepare Stinnie for meaningful game action, before leaving Stinnie with a vote of trust.
"My first start came in, I think, Week 12 of my third year," Jensen shared. "Stinnie is a pro and he’s continually trying to get better throughout practice. Being a young guard and being able to watch Ali Marpet and Alex Cappa – who has really come along the last two years – it teaches you a lot sitting behind those guys how to do the job, how to approach game week and stuff like that. Stinnie has been doing that.
"I have the utmost confidence in Aaron stepping in.”