The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Houston Texans have played each other in eight straight preseasons – soon to be nine – and each time it has been the last game on the schedule before the regular season begins. As such, the Buccaneers have seen a whole lot of young Texans scrapping for final roster spots, and vice versa.
Last year, for instance, Buccaneers rookie tight end Ryan Purvis caught a fourth-quarter touchdown pass from second-year quarterback Josh Johnson as the Bucs mounted a late rally in a 27-20 loss.
Purvis, an undrafted free agent, impressed enough to earn a practice squad spot and, eventually, a late-season call-up to the 53-man roster. Johnson cemented the Bucs' belief that they just couldn't let the inexperienced but promising quarterback go. He is now the team's primary backup to starter Josh Freeman and the man who will start this Thursday's 2010 preseason finale for Tampa Bay in Houston.
There were plenty of other young players on both sidelines who impressed their coaches in that somewhat unorthodox final preseason game. Starters generally play a single series, at most, in that final warmup while dozens of rookies, undrafted players and lesser-known but intriguing prospects get ample playing time. In fact, many teams have taken to not playing a good number of their starters at all.
Last year, the Texans held starting running back Steve Slaton out of the preseason finale entirely and started Ryan Moats. It was undrafted rookie Arian Foster, however, who saw the most playing time and ended up with a game-high 49 rushing yards. Foster wound up on the practice squad, was later promoted to the active roster and is now first on the team's depth chart heading into 2010.
The Bucs loved seeing rookie fourth-rounder Kyle Moore rack up a sack and two quarterback hits in that game. The Texans began to see the emergence of second-year wide receiver Jacoby Jones, who caught three passes for 148 yards, including an 87-yard touchdown. The Bucs got a fine performance from rookie cornerback E.J. Biggers, who is now their first-team nickel back. And so on.
The primary players may not be obvious yet, but the same sorts of storylines are likely to emerge this Thursday at Reliant Stadium.
"It's really a great chance to look at your team from the bottom up this weekend," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris, who will be facing a roster cutdown from 75 to 53 players two days later. "You get those guys out there and see how you're going to form and develop these guys, which guys have development squad potential and which guys have bottom-of-the-roster potential. We've still got some position battles out there that we need to sew up, so we're looking forward to this week. We're looking forward to getting to Houston and really playing a good football team. It will be a nice test for some of these guys."
It's those positions that still seem a bit unsettled that will be of most interest on Thursday. There is little still to be decided in the starting lineup – the Z receiver spot is still up for grabs but one would have to consider Saturday starter Sammie Stroughter in the lead – but the same is not true of the rest of the depth chart. At defensive end, for instance, there is an abundance of young but still-unproven talent.
Second-year defensive end Michael Bennett, who joined the Bucs last year after the preseason, is one player in that competition, and it certainly helps him that he owns two of the team's three sacks in this preseason. Bennett will be eager to solidify his summer resume this week, but he's going to do so in a controlled manner.
"I'm very excited to get out there and play against the Texans, just work with my teammates and try to become a better player this year," he said. "I'm just going to go out there and play as hard as I can. Don't try to overdo it, just do what I need to do and try to make the plays that count and be a good teammate."
Bennett is one of many young Buccaneers with a lot to gain on Thursday, and they are all likely to get a significant opportunity to do so. Running back Kareem Huggins could solidify the outstanding impression he has made this summer with one more productive outing. Second-round wide receiver Arrelious Benn could improve his chances of being in the offensive mix when the regular-season begins. Third-round cornerback Myron Lewis could begin pushing Biggers for that nickel back job.
And every young player could do himself a huge favor, in terms of making the 53-man roster, if he performs well on special teams. The Bucs stumbled a bit in that regard against Jacksonville, unusual for a team generally strong in that phase of the game but a little less surprising when one considers how many different players are involved in preseason punts and kickoffs. Tampa Bay puts a great premium on special teams play during the regular season, so proving oneself in that arena can greatly improve a young player's chances. Some of the Bucs' youngsters have already done so, in fact.
"It's usually a winning edge for us, but it wasn't the other night," said Morris of special teams play. "But throughout the preseason, what you've been able to see E.J. Biggers do, Cody Grimm, Dekoda Watson and some of those young emerging promising players and what they've been able to do on special teams…Cody makes every kickoff tackle, it looks like. And Dekoda, it's one of those two. They're going up the sideline full-speed, and then going out there and playing defense. But that's what you've got to have. You've got to be ready to put that together with your football team and be among the best in the league."
Dozens of young Buccaneers simply want to remain a part of the league, first and foremost. They will get an outstanding opportunity to prove they belong on Thursday night.
Freeman On Target
As usual, Tampa Bay's practice alternated between periods devoted to offense and defense during the second hour of Monday's practice. When it was the defense's turn, one of the Bucs' young quarterbacks read the prepared play cards and ran the Houston scout-team offense. When it was the offense's turn, the team generally had two quarterbacks in the backfield.
This wasn't some new offensive wrinkle; only one of the two quarterbacks was holding a football. No matter who actually took the snap – Josh Johnson, Rudy Carpenter or Jevan Snead – he was shadowed from behind by the Bucs' starting quarterback, Josh Freeman. Both quarterbacks would go through the drop, the set and the downfield scan, one eventually releasing the football and the other pantomiming the same. It's worth noting that Freeman didn't always choose to throw his phantom football in the same direction as the less experienced Carpenter or Snead.
Freeman was the shadow man on Monday because he is recovering from the fracture he suffered to the tip of his right thumb in the second game of the preseason. At this point, he has just a small wrap on that digit, and 99.9% of his body and mind are in perfect working order. Freeman and the team expect that to bump up to 100% in time to get ready for the regular-season opener on September 12, and so the second-year passer is doing everything he can to stay ready for the Cleveland Browns.
Fortunately, his coach allowed him to come out to practice on Monday. Last week, Morris was only half-joking when he said he was barring Freeman from the field in order to kill the young passer's temptation to push too quickly. It was more important last week for Freeman to pursue his physical rehab, but he has progressed to the point where a few hours on the field with his teammates is now advantageous.
"We like where he is," said Morris. "I trusted him to go out on the field this week. Everything is going the right way for him. He's progressing nicely and everything's on schedule."
Freeman actually came in to One Buccaneer Place on Sunday during the players' day off following Saturday night's game against Jacksonville. That's not unusual; most injured players are required to come in on such days for treatment. However, Freeman took the opportunity to move his rehab up a step, going out on the field for an approved light throwing session with a trainer. That his young teammate was putting in whatever time was necessary to get back on the field was no surprise to starting center Jeff Faine, who appreciated Freeman's dedicated approach during the offseason.
"We've been working the entire offseason together," said Faine. "He's definitely put in some work. I think he was here first this offseason in February to get back in the groove of things. As a young player, hopefully he can bounce back from an injury quick and hopefully he doesn't miss too many beats as he comes back."
Additional Injury Updates
Freeman will not play against the Texans on Thursday night, but that's of little consequence. The Buccaneers are likely to follow the common NFL preseason substitution plan, in which starters play at most a single series in the final game and the bottom of the roster carries most of the action, as mentioned above.
As such, some other Buccaneer veterans who are expected to be ready to play against Cleveland in the opener have already been ruled out for Thursday's game. That group includes guard Davin Joseph, safety Sabby Piscitelli and wide receiver Maurice Stovall.
Joseph didn't play against Jacksonville, either, and he was held out of Monday's practice in order to rest his injured hip. That's just simple precaution with the Buccaneers' Pro Bowl right guard, and a continuation of the team's effort to be at full strength for the games that count.
"It's not worth it to bring him back and force the issue, so he'll be out this week but he should be ready for Cleveland," said Morris. "There are really no significant injuries [or players] I'm not expecting to have for the Cleveland game. We're fired up about that."
Third-year lineman Jeremy Zuttah will likely start in Joseph's place, as he did against Jacksonville. Zuttah was supplanted as the starter at right guard by newcomer Keydrick Vincent after the second preseason game but it didn't take long for Zuttah's valuable versatility to come in handy.
"I wasn't expecting Zuttah to come in here skipping, happy about losing his position, and he wasn't," said Morris. "He was an angry worker for a couple days, but he came in here and he was a professional. He went to work and he had to go right back into the starting lineup and play right guard. He's got to know every spot on the offensive line because his next opportunity is going to come from somebody and he's got to be ready to take advantage of it. He's a consummate pro, he's getting better and better at it. He's a highly-needed and great backup for what he can do for us at so many positions."
Stovall has been out since sustaining an ankle injury in the preseason opener. There was initially some thought that he might be back for the finale in Houston, but the Bucs are being cautious with him, as well. Piscitelli sustained a concussion in the second half against Jacksonville and will be held out of Thursday's game following a short week. Morris said that Piscitelli had been playing well against the Jaguars before his injury.
"He wanted back in that competition and I admire that," said the coach. "You've got to admire his fight and what he was able to do."