1. RG Alex Cappa
The Buccaneers offensive line drew praise from their head coach following Sunday’s season opener against the 49ers. They were instrumental in establishing a long-awaited ground game, especially one that places on emphasis on running it up the gut.
"Yeah, we’re a tight end to tight end, inside running team, so yeah, [Center] Ryan [Jensen] did a heck of a job,” Head Coach Bruce Arians said following the game. “Ali [Marpet] had a heck of a ball game. Donovan [Smith] had a heck of a game in the run game also."
Center Ryan Jensen was specifically called out for what he, Marpet and Smith allowed both Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber to do. In the passing game, Coach Arians also thought the o-line held up their end of the bargain, overall. Winston was sacked three times and if you talked to Winston- he’d probably tell you they were on him for holding the ball too long. This week however, the guy across the line, who Cappa will be tasked with containing, is going to more familiar than most – defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. A teammate of guys on the line like Marpet (and Smith) for four years, you know it will be a matchup filled with clashing emotions. Yes, he’s the opponent now, but he’s still a friend. McCoy primarily operates out of the three-technique, which will be on the outside shoulder of Cappa. He’s one of those defenders that can command a double team, but either way, Cappa is going to be in on it. The test will likely be the biggest of the second-year player’s career so far. He’ll have a chance to prove why he won the starting job this preseason.
2. RB Ronald Jones
Jones had a solid first game of his sophomore season on Sunday, amassing 75 yards on the ground made more impressive by the fact he did it on only 13 carries. It gave him an impressive 5.8-yard average on the day. What was most encouraging though was how fluid and decisive he looked. Granted, the aforementioned effort by the offensive line helped, but at the end of the day, Jones still has to take those opportunities. Running up the middle can be daunting for a young player, with a literal wall of defenders in your path with the aim to pummel you into the ground rather than let you gain any of it. Jones took his handoffs with an ever-growing confidence that really started to get going in the second half.
"I don’t know if [his hand] could’ve gotten any hotter unless he [would have] run through the last one and scored a couple times,” Head Coach Bruce Arians said of Jones’ performance on Sunday. “But he was very decisive and there were a lot of holes for him to be decisive in. He was running through arm tackles and that’s exactly what I expected out of him."
Though Jones isn’t the starter, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich made no qualms about his philosophy when it comes to going with the guy that has the ‘hot hand.’
“I’d have gave it to him 40 times,” Leftwich said. “I have no problem with that, trust me. We’re trying to win football games. But you gotta understand, penalties put you in position sometimes where you can’t just turn around and hand the ball off.”
Jones will be looking to build on his Week 1 performance on Thursday night in prime time. With all the hype surrounding him in training camp, he was thrust into the national conversation, and therefore onto a lot of fans’ fantasy teams. You can be sure that a lot of eyes will be paying attention to what RoJo can do in a big-time game.
3. S Jordan Whitehead
Whitehead led the team in tackles on Sunday, though that isn’t necessarily an indication of performance, especially from a player in the secondary. However. Whitehead was heavily involved in defending the run game and came downhill to make those aforementioned tackles more often than not. He even had a sack that was unfortunately negated by a penalty. Therefore, they were largely quality tackles that helped him be effective. He seems to be seeing things more and more, making steady improvement from last year to training camp to 2019.
“He had a lot of tackles,” Bowles agreed this week. “Jordan had a great camp. He did some good things yesterday. He just has to continue to keep getting better.”
Thursday will be an opportunity to do just that. Carolina’s run game includes dual-threat running back Christian McCaffrey, who not only gained over 100 yards on the ground in his first game of the year, but added 81 yards receiving, to boot. Whitehead will undoubtedly be one of those players tasked with containing McCaffrey and he can make a statement by how effective he is against him – all on the national stage.
4. DT Vita Vea
So, Vea had a great sophomore debut, punctuated by the fact that he had just returned the week before from a sprained LCL. A big reason for the 49ers being held to under 100 yards rushing was Vea and his effort up front on Sunday. For being nearly 350 pounds, Vea is athletic as all get out, and can move laterally in ways that shouldn’t be allowed for men his size. His forte is in his run defense, sure, but I’d love to see him get some penetration and take down Panthers quarterback Cam Newton. He deserves the recognition that comes with sacks.
The idea in pairing him with a guy like fellow defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh is to force opposing offensive lines to make some tough decisions. You simply can’t double-team both of them – especially when you have guys like outside linebacker Carl Nassib chomping at the bit to get to the quarterback from the edge (side note – Nassib had a huge sack of Newton last year, dropping him for a loss of 10). I think NFL opponents are getting the memo that they need to respect Vea and his abilities – we’ll see if that’s the case for the Panthers on Thursday night.
5. ILB Devin White
In his very first regular season game as a professional, rookie inside linebacker Devin White recorded six tackles on Sunday against San Francisco. White has more responsibility than most, rookie and veteran alike. In his very first NFL game, he was the defensive signal caller, equipped with a headset that links him directly to Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. It thereby assigns him the responsibility of relaying the calls to his teammates on the field. A natural leader, White has remained unphased by all the extra pressure and though his debut was absent of a ‘splash’ play like a sack or tackle-for-loss, you can be sure he’ll continue to get more comfortable as the season goes on.
“I’ve been playing football since I was seven years old, so it was like just another colored jersey,” White said. “It was different being out there, controlling the huddle, making sure they get the calls, making my checks and stuff – it was very different than college. That’s a man’s sport when you get to the NFL. I can say that because it’s just different – everybody’s bigger, everybody’s faster, but I belong.”
He’ll be introducing himself to the Carolina Panthers, his first division-rival of 2019, while also looking for that first ‘splash’ play of the season. Here’s to hoping it comes against guys like Newton and McCaffrey.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers regular season practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.