Pictures from the Bucs' training camp practice on Satuday.
Of the 18 different players who caught a pass for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in Thursday's preseason opener in Philadelphia, five were running backs. In fact, every tailback who was active for the contest (number-two back Charles Sims was out with a minor injury) was targeted at least once by Tampa Bay quarterbacks.
Rookie Russell Hansbrough tied for the team lead with three catches on Thursday, which he turned into 24 yards as the Bucs mounted several decent fourth-quarter drives in an ultimately unsuccessful comeback bid. Rookie Peyton Barber and second-year man Storm Johnson had two grabs each, while veterans Doug Martin and Mike James caught one apiece. In all, those five accounted for 119 of the Buccaneers' 328 passing yards.
Preseason games are not necessarily indicative of the choices a team is going to make in the regular season, and one might expect the vanilla game plans of August to include plenty of check-downs. However, the attention Buccaneer quarterbacks paid to their running backs on Thursday is not likely to be a fluke. Martin and Sims combined for 84 receptions in 2015, with Dirk Koetter at the helm of the offense, and there's a good chance those numbers go up in 2016.
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"We personally don't even like to look for backs that can't catch or don't catch well," said Koetter, now the Bucs' head coach but still the play-caller on game day. "I think catching is something that can be improved. I know that's something Doug works on very hard and in Charles Sims we have a guy that's got excellent hands. We're going to throw the ball to our running backs."
On the Thursday-night drive that ended in Jameis Winston's 26-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Russell Shepard, the Bucs' starting quarterback got another 26 yards on a much shorter pass. This one was swung out to James on the right side, and the fourth-year back dashed all the way down to the Philadelphia 26 to set up the score.
That was a pleasant development for Winston, not to mention a potentially positive sign for Tampa Bay's defense.
"Well if you look at our practice film, our defense was shutting down our screens all the time," he said. "But we were very happy how our screens had success in the game."
James's big play could help in the crowded battle for the Bucs' third tailback spot, but his competitors had their moments as well on Thursday night. During the regular season, barring injury, most of the work out of the backfield will go to Martin and Sims, no matter who wins that third spot. Those two formed the most prolific tandem of backs in terms of yards from scrimmage in the NFL last year, and the Bucs think they can get even more out of them in 2016. That "more" may come largely in the passing attack.