Head Coach Greg Schiano has not revealed his exact plan for playtime distribution on Saturday night when his Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium, but it's clear that the starters will get a much longer run after two fairly brief cameos to start the preseason.
That's a one-time luxury during the preseason for the front-line performers, as the fourth game is almost always reserved almost exclusively for those young players still trying to earn roster spots. One thing it affords the starters, especially on offense, is an opportunity to overcome early mistakes and settle into a groove over a number of drives.
“We want to come out and have a fast start," said Freeman. "That’s the main goal. We have the ability to, for sure. It’s just going to be a matter of guys locking in, focusing and ultimately doing their job and me doing my job as well.”
The Buccaneers haven't achieved that fast start in either of their first two games, as losses to Baltimore and New England both began with three-and-outs on offense. Freeman did lead a field goal drive against the Ravens' defensive starters on the second possession of the preseason opener, but the follow-up drive in New England included two sacks and a quick punt.
There is one significant difference between those two games and the one coming up on Saturday night. For the first time this summer, the Buccaneers are actually game-planning for an opponent, if not necessarily at the level of a regular-season week. Obviously, the Dolphins will be doing the same, so the playing field remains level, but starting fast this weekend will speak to both the focus of the players and the strength of the team's offensive strategy.
“Last year we ran the gamut as far as when we scored – was it a flurry in the middle, early or late – but [we need to] consistently be able to sustain drives," said Freeman. "We have to be much better on third down, that’s been a major focal point this year. When we get in the red zone, harping back on earlier, [it’s about] coming away with touchdowns. We were able to do that last year. I know the Dolphins last year were tremendous in the red zone defensively, so any time we get in the red zone, we’re wanting to come away with seven instead of three."
One of Freeman's best red zone targets, wide receiver Mike Williams, says the start-fast mantra applies to more than just the opening minutes of the game. Possibly anticipating that the starters will be allowed to stay on the field to begin the second half – that's a fairly common team strategy in the third week of the preseason, Williams says the early action of the third quarter will be telling, as well.
“Start fast – go out there and start fast," said Williams, echoing Freeman's answer regarding the team's main goal on Saturday. "Come out there in the third quarter and start fast. We want to see how we can maintain the tempo and keep going and try to put up points.”
The Buccaneers were better in that category in 2012 in the first year with Schiano and Offensive Coordinator Mike Sullivan at the helm…dramatically better, in fact. The Bucs scored only 34 first-quarter points in all of the 2011 season, the third-worst mark in the NFL. Last year, Tampa Bay tied for ninth in the league in that category with 94 points. They were within one touchdown of tying for third in first-quarter points, in fact. That was certainly a promising step, as six of the other 10 teams in the top 11 in that category made the playoffs. If the Bucs can improve in that category even further in 2013, it could catapult them into the postseason.