Buccaneers' Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith was careful as he described the purpose of the preseason from a coaching perspective. Of course, any game players play in and coaches coach in, the team wants to win. But training camp and the preseason schedule serve a major preemptive purpose beyond just the win and loss column. The exhibition games and supporting practices serve as a six-week long test to see just what the players on your 91-man roster are made of. It's a way to ensure that come Week One of the regular season, you are fielding the best possible team.
"We play the preseason to win but we also play the preseason to learn about our players and what they can and they cannot do," Smith said. "I think that's the great thing about the first couple weeks of the season. You really get to see what people are going to be offensively and defensively."
As Smith alluded to, once the team is whittled down to 53 men, there is still a transitionary period the first couple weeks of the season where the team nails down their chemistry and cohesion. It's why the first week of the regular season is particularly exciting. Sure, it's the first snap of meaningful football in over half a year. It's the first time you go up against a different opponent for real. But it's also the first time you get to see the team you built play together. After a physical training camp like the Bucs had, with a defense that has as many new faces as the Bucs' does, the 2018 season has become much-anticipated in Tampa Bay.
"It's more in practice than in games as you know in the preseason," Smith said of the opportunity guys have to build chemistry and put all the pieces together. "We don't get a whole lot of snaps with the group. We have some guys that have missed some time. It's going to be fun to watch these guys play because they do compete very hard. That's one thing that I've been very impressed with when they've been out there. They have a very strong attitude about being physical and they like to compete so it's going to be fun to watch them play. This is what we all work for: it's the regular season and it's upon us. We got 17 weeks of going at it with each other."
View exclusive photos of the Buccaneers' 2018 Preseason from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
Now that the pieces are in place, it's about making them fit together effectively. Not only do the Buccaneers have an interchangeable front four, they also have a lot of variety within the secondary. After drafting three defensive backs in the 2018 draft, the last level of defense looks radically different. Each new piece brings a new skill set. You have M.J. Stewart who was a cornerback chameleon in college. He looks to translate best at the NFL level as a slot corner because of his size and physical nature. Putting him at nickel almost gives you a true extension of the linebacking corps. That's not to count out his speed on the outside, though. He even played some snaps at safety in college because he's that athletic. Then you have Carlton Davis III with his size and length. Davis is long and lean and can match up with the big-bodied receivers that seem to be becoming more and more prevalent across the league – the NFC South being no exception.
The name of the game with the new pieces to the defensive line is flexibility. Guys like defensive end Vinny Curry, acquired in free agency this offseason, are well-known for their ability to play both outside on the edge and inside. What was more surprising was seeing bona fide pass rusher Jason Pierre-Paul also sliding inside – in all kinds of situations – and being extremely effective in stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback. Sixth-year player Will Gholston, who has traditionally been used at the end position, has also been seeing some time inside with the injuries that happened throughout camp to the interior. Point is, the personnel the Bucs now have allow for a lot of options and making heads or tails of which options will be most effective is what the coaching staff has been tasked with.
"We've got to play to their strengths," Smith said. "If we don't call plays on the defensive side that play to their strengths then we're not giving them the best chance to succeed. We have some guys that have different skill sets and we've tried to put them in the best positions that we can."