RB Michael Bennett scored the game's only rushing touchdown on Saturday on a one-yard carry in the fourth quarter
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers held the Miami Dolphins to just six points Saturday night while putting up 17 of their own in their preseason-opening win. The Bucs committed no turnovers, no penalties, and outgained the Dolphins by nearly 100 yards, 295 to 198.
Those figures are nice and hopefully indicative of good things to come, but in the overall picture of the 2008 season they mean relatively little. The most important statistics won't begin to accrue until September 7, the date of the Bucs' regular season opener in New Orleans.
Eighth-year veteran running back Michael Bennett knows this. He's been through his share of preseason games that don't count in the standings, and fresh off his team-high 74-yard-rushing day, including a one-yard touchdown run, Bennett attached little significance to his performance and gave a fairly critical self-evaluation after the game.
"I think it was average," Bennett said. "I came out and had some gray areas early on. I'm just happy I was able to get the time out on the field to really show the coaches what I can do. I don't like to have any gray areas. I had one play where we had to call the timeout so I could align right. So once I get the gray areas out I can feel happy and feel confident, but again I'm thankful we got a win as a team. I think overall the team played pretty good – no penalties, no turnovers – so that's always a plus and we strive to do our best."
Those "gray areas" to which Bennett refers have steadily faded to black since he joined the Bucs in a midseason trade last year. After a full offseason learning the offense, Bennett said he's much more comfortable with everything but is still continuing to perfect his game.
"It's definitely a little easier, but I think I'm just thinking too much trying to make a play," Bennett said. "But in the end I'm just thankful that I got the opportunity to play tonight and really show the coaches what I can do. Hopefully I can continue to add to that."
Despite his ho-hum self-assessment, Bennett was actually very impressive Saturday evening. He shouldered the load for the Bucs' rushing attack – carrying the ball 19 times, 10 carries more than the next closest back – and also had a team-high four receptions which netted 16 yards.
Bennett has long been known as a speedster, but his full arsenal of skills was on display in Miami. He ran both inside and outside, picking up tough yards up the middle but also beating defenders around the corner, and showed soft hands catching passes out of the backfield.
That versatility is a major reason the Bucs inked Bennett to a multi-year deal this offseason. Still, he's taking nothing for granted.
"I think doing it all is fun," Bennett said. "Whatever play the coaches call, I'm happy to get in and give them looks. We've got a deep backfield and I just want to continue to strive for my best to make the team. I don't want to say, 'Oh, well I got re-signed so I'm a shoe-in.' My thing is just going out, working hard and letting them see the ability that I have. Once I get very comfortable with everything I can go out and play and if Earnest or Warrick is not in then I can get my number called."
Bennett provided one of the plays of the day early in the fourth quarter, taking a handoff to the right and burning the Dolphin defense around the corner for a 31-yard gain. With one defender to beat, Bennett couldn't quite muster up enough speed to crack the goal line, as Dolphins safety Courtney Bryan pushed him out at the two-yard line.
Bennett punched it in a few plays later, but grinned as he talked about the big play, saying he thought he had the score.
"For a minute I did think I had it," Bennett said. "I really didn't turn into him because I felt I could beat the angle, but the guy, I obviously underestimated his speed. Hopefully if I get an opportunity like that again I won't let that happen."
In all, Bennett's performance was a bright spot in an all-around solid effort to kick off the preseason. Fellow veterans Earnest Graham and Warrick Dunn started for the Bucs, but neither got a chance to carry the ball before they headed for the bench. That gave Bennett a chance to shine and show just how deep the Bucs running backs corps truly is.
Now it's just about building on that effort as the regular season draws ever closer.
"I think we had fun tonight," Bennett said. "We've got a great team win and it's fun to look where we came from and get a win. A lot of people will say it's just the preseason, but to get a win it definitely feels good. We've got some things we'll correct on film and build on this game. We've got the defending AFC champs coming in, so we want to do our best to get geared up for those guys."