The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have absolutely no preseason history with the Baltimore Ravens, their opponents for Thursday night's preseason opener at Raymond James Stadium, but the series debut sure comes at an interesting time.
See, the first pass that Joe Flacco completes on Thursday (assuming the Ravens QB has at least one completion in what will likely be a brief cameo) will be his first since a critical 15-yarder to Anquan Boldin set up Baltimore's game-clinching points in Super Bowl XLVII. The initial yard that Ray Rice picks up on the ground Thursday evening (same caveat as Flacco) will be his first since he accounted for Baltimore's last offensive yard in that same game.
Yes, this is Baltimore's first preseason visit to Tampa. More interestingly, it's also the first real game action for the Ravens since they downed San Francisco, 34-31, in last February's Super Bowl, marking the first time the Buccaneers have ever opened a preseason against the defending league champs. Since Thursday's game won't count in the real standings, it can't really be considered the start of Baltimore's title defense, but the Ravens still present an intriguing opponent for a Buccaneers team that has serious postseason aspirations of its own in 2013.
"They're coming off the ultimate victory, to win the Super Bowl," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano, just hours before kickoff on Thursday. "Their team has changed and they've had some turnover, but I think when you look at them offensively, their quarterback [Flacco], their tailback [Rice] and their receiver [Torrey Smith] are all back."
Indeed, Baltimore has had more turnover than is typical for a defending champion. Boldin is gone, traded to those same 49ers in the offseason. Key defenders Ray Lewis (retired), Ed Reed (signed with Houston) and Dannell Ellerbe (signed with Miami) have also departed; those three accounted for four of the last five tackles on San Francisco's failed final drive in the Super Bowl. Bernard Pollard and Paul Kruger have moved on, as well. In addition, tight end Dennis Pitta has been lost for the season due to a training camp hip injury.
Of course, the Ravens also reloaded in many ways, especially on defense where they added Elvis Dumervil, Michael Huff, Chris Canty and Marcus Spears through free agency plus Matt Elam and Arthur Brown via the draft. Baltimore's core offense may indeed be very similar in 2013 to its 2012 version, but it's safe to say there will be a new-look defense around mainstays Haloti Ngata and Terrell Suggs. It is thus possible that John Harbaugh and the Ravens' coaching staff will choose to give their frontline defenders a little more playing time on Thursday night as they seek to jell on that side of the ball.
That is of no particular concern to the Bucs' coaching staff, however.
"How much will they play? I don't know," said Schiano. "They may play five plays, they may play 10 plays, they may play no plays. I'm not really concerned about our opponent in this opening game. Really what I want to see is if the Bucs can go out and execute our defense, our offense, our special teams, regardless of what it's against or who it's against. And that's really the focus."
Schiano does know how long Buccaneer players will be in the game on Thursday night, give or take a few plays depending upon the overall success for the offense and defense. It's not a plan that can be summed up in a sentence or two; rather, there are varying targets for certain players, some of whom need the exposure more than others.
"Everybody's a little different," said Schiano. "They'll all get a little bit, but some might get a very little bit. The other thing is, what kind of depth do we have behind them? I really want to see those twos and threes play a substantial amount. Part of it is not only playing, but playing over a period of time. Can you handle up to the fatigue factor? So, it's interesting."
Schiano has said that rookie quarterback Mike Glennon will see a significant amount of playing time throughout the season as the Buccaneers work on the critical decision of how the QB depth chart stacks up behind starter Josh Freeman. Freeman likely won't take too many snaps on Thursday night in order to get Glennon into the game more quickly, and also because the fifth-year veteran has already looked quite sharp on the practice field in training camp.
"He looks good," said Schiano. "Yeah, he came back locked in and has performed well in practice. He definitely has a better feel and understanding of our offense. That allows him now to dig into the defenses more and be able to understand things better. Hopefully that cumulative effect is going to play big dividends."
And, of course, some Buccaneers won't see the field at all on Thursday night due to health concerns, whether they are finishing up long-term recoveries from 2012 injuries or dealing with minor training camp aches and pains. There are no official game inactives during the preseason, but Schiano has revealed that the following players will not see action against the Ravens: S Sean Baker, DE Adrian Clayborn, LB Jacob Cutrera, WR David Douglas, DT Gary Gibson, G Davin Joseph, DT Derek Landri FB Erik Lorig, DE Aaron Morgan, G Carl Nicks, CB Darrelle Revis, TE Luke Stocker and K Lawrence Tynes.
Freeman isn't the only Buccaneer who has been impressive during training camp. Coaches are eager to see if such young standouts as Glennon, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Leonard Johnson, CB Rashaan Melvin,
RB Mike James, WR Chris Owusu and DT Akeem Spence can translate that practice-field performance into an impact on game night. And, of course, Buccaneer fans are eager to see such veteran newcomers as S Dashon Goldson and TE Tom Crabtree in action.
"The guys have come [into camp] incredibly focused," said Schiano. "We've had good leadership, which makes my job easier. When the leaders take control of the football team then you actually get to coach, and our coaches have been able to coach because they've kind of taken care of the periphery type stuff. We've worked hard, it's been hot and the guys have pushed through it. Now we'll see tonight how we go under the lights and play."
The Bucs will open their 2013 preseason against the Ravens on Thursday night at 7:30 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com.