Preseason NFL games may not count, but they can matter. You may not be able to convict based on the evidence of an August evening, but you can justify further investigation. And if we have an early verdict from the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2019 preseason opener – the first game under new Head Coach Bruce Arians – it's that the offense looks very, very promising.
The Buccaneers lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers, 30-28, Friday night at Heinz Field. Arians had insisted two days earlier that the top goal for his team's first outing was to get a win, even if the game was going to be mostly contested by reserves and young players, so the final result is technically a disappointment. It came down to the wire, as third quarterback Ryan Griffin directed two fourth-quarter touchdown drives and the Bucs had a chance to tie it on a two-point conversion with 10 seconds left. That play failed, as did two earlier two-point attempts, but it's hard to feel too down after Jameis Winston and the starting offense had a nearly flawless, if brief, debut.
"I thought it was a perfect drive," said Arians, who worked his first Buccaneer gameday sideline in a familiar spot, as he was a Steelers staffer from 2004-11. "We ran the ball well. That sets up a lot of stuff for us. I thought Jameis took what was there. Obviously, I was pleased with the starters. I liked the way we fought back. The game is 60 minutes. You never know what's going to happen."
Winston completed five of six passes for 40 yards on the only drive for the first-team offense, including a nine-yard touchdown pass to wide receiver Chris Godwin, and he also ran once for 10 yards. Perhaps even more encouraging was the rushing attack, as Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones combined for 36 yards on six carries and Jones also caught a five-yard screen pass. Tampa Bay's offensive line was outstanding, giving Winston plenty of time to throw and consistently opening wide lanes for the backs.
"I saw a good combo of both run and pass," said starting left guard Ali Marpet. "I think we were moving the ball pretty well. Jameis looked really good, the receivers looked really good, the running backs looked really good and it was a pretty solid drive all around."
Godwin, who is stepping into a full-time starting role in his third year, was a frequent red zone target for the Bucs last year and on this play he did most of the work after a short horizontal pass down the line. Once again the Buccaneers' lively offensive line played a big part in the play's success.
"It was just a little screen play," said Godwin. "Jameis was able to get me a good ball pretty quickly and then we got some good blocks from the offensive linemen and the tight ends. It’s up to the receiver to make a play and that’s what I was able to do there.
"I think we did a really good job of mixing in the run and the pass and getting a lot of movement, which is a testament to the offensive line, the play-calling and to the receivers being on our Ps and Qs. I think that’s something that we can build off of."
Tampa Bay's defense had an encouraging start as well. Pittsburgh rested quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, along with essentially all of its first-line offense, and started third-year man Josh Dobbs, who hit on a 43-yarder to James Washington on his first throw of the game. However, that was it for that drive as blitzing linebacker Deone Bucannon short-circuited it with an eight-yard sack. The Buccaneers kept some of their starters on for Pittsburgh's second possession – long enough for Carl Nassib to record a 16-yard sack – but the game was in the hands of reserves by early in the second quarter. Vernon Hargreaves also had a leaping sideline interception that was erased by unrelated flags back at the line of scrimmage.
"We really focus on ourselves and that’s playing fast and physical and knowing your job, doing your job," said rookie linebacker Devin White. "We gave up a couple completions, but it’s the start of the season and you have to get back in the groove. We want to thrive off of turnovers. Vernon got one, but unfortunately there were offsetting penalties.”
The first half even ended with an encouraging moment for the special teams. At the end of a two-minute drill led by third quarterback Ryan Griffin, rookie kicker Matt Gay came on to try a 55-yard field goal. The fifth-round pick out of Utah, who has made a number of eye-opening long-range shots in training camp, calmly split the uprights on his first true pressure kick.
"It felt good," said Gay of his first NFL swing. "Warmups were good for me. I was able to swing the leg and play the wind and find out which way it was going, get out there early today and just get a feel for it. Coming off of that, it was the same as I've been doing through college, the same thing. Just coming out there and kicking the ball through the uprights.
In the end, the Steelers won the game though the Buccaneers had the overall yardage advantage, 479-339. Between Winston's one drive and Griffin's turn, second-string quarterback Blaine Gabbert also led just one drive and was sharp, taking the team down to Pittsburgh's 17-yard line before a failed fourth-and-one run. Tampa Bay's three quarterbacks combined to complete 37 of 57 passes for 420 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, leading to a passer rating of 98.6.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' efforts were undermined by some sloppy play, as evidenced by 14 penalties for 112 yards. That might be unsurprising for a preseason opener, but it still clearly irritated Arians.
"Overall, I'm really disappointed in the number of penalties, especially on special teams," he said. "We've got to get a lot of that cleaned up."
The Bucs only committed one turnover on the evening, a Griffin fumble on a sack in the second quarter. The defense also only secured one takeaway, with Isaiah Johnson recovering a fumble forced by rookie cornerback Mazzi Wilkins. That set up the game's last scoring drive, one of two that ended in touchdown runs by Dare Ogunbowale. The second-year back was among the Bucs' standouts during the long portion of the game contested by deep reserves, as he finished with 34 rushing yards and those two scores. Other young players to step up during Griffin's time at the helm were tight end Tanner Hudson, who caught seven passes for 84 yards including a remarkable one-handed scoring grab, and wide receiver Spencer Schnell, who led the team with 119 yards on seven grabs.
"Mazzi had a great hit there, got the fumble," said Arians. "Griff, playing with a lot of young guys, did a heck of a job moving the football for us."
Tampa Bay's first drive under Arians was almost perfect, needing just one third-down conversion and including just one incompletion on a near-miss deep ball to new speed receiver Breshad Perriman. Barber ran three times for 18 yards and Jones added 13 yards on two carries plus a five-yard screen. The one time that Winston was pressured he spun away and then wisely declined a risky throw to run for a first down and keep the drive moving.
Pittsburgh's first drive, led by Josh Dobbs with starting quarterback Ben Roethlisberger sitting out, got close to midfield on a 43-yard strike down the middle James Washington, but that was the Steelers' only positive play. A Deone Bucannon sack led to a punt that was fair caught by Bobo Wilson at the Bucs' 10. Safety Jordan Whitehead also had a tackle for loss on the possession.
Gabbert's first drive might have ended in a three-and-out but defensive end Tyson Alualu was flagged for roughing the passer on a third-down incompletion. Instead, it got into scoring territory before coming up short on a failed fourth-and-one run by Andre Ellington from the Pittsburgh 17. Gabbert got the Bucs inside the red zone with a 20-yard seam pass to TE Tanner Hudson on third-and-13 and another eight-yard strike to Hudson that set up the fourth-down play. Arians didn't hesitate to go for it, sending his offense up to the line of scrimmage in a hurry as soon as the ball was spotted.
The Buccaneers' defense began its second possession with a majority of its starters still on the field but gradually replaced most of them during the possession. Carl Nassib put the Steelers in an early hole with a 16-yard sack on a successful jail-break blitz but a subsequent Vernon Hargreaves interception was overturned by offsetting penalties. Dobbs kept the drive alive with a pair of nifty third-down scrambles, the second one for 36 yards down to the Bucs' 17. Tampa Bay's defense held there, however, and the home team settled for Chris Boswell's 33-yard field goal.
View photos from Tampa Bay's Week 1 Preseason matchup against Pittsburgh.
Tampa Bay started out its third drive backed up to its 10 thanks to a penalty on the kickoff return, and Griffin came in to take over the offense for the rest of the night. A string of penalty flags led to a quick punt, though a good tackle by Ryan Smith on the return and a Pittsburgh holding penalty pushed the ball back to the Steelers' 36.
Pittsburgh took the lead on the ensuing drive behind third-string quarterback Mason Rudolph, who directed a seven-play touchdown drive ending in an eight-yard touchdown pass to James Washington. Running back Jaylen Samuels set up the score with a 22-yard run up the middle on a third-and-one from the Bucs' 30-yard line. Both teams were deep into their reserves at this point.
Pittsburgh got one more scoring chance in the game's final two minutes after a sack by linebacker Tyler Matakevich forced a Griffin fumble that the Steelers recovered at Tampa Bay's 27. Cornerback M.J. Stewart broke up a third-down pass moments later, leading to a 47-yard field goal try by Boswell that the veteran kicker nailed for a 13-7 lead. Griffin's aforementioned two-minute drill set Gay up for the long-range equalizer.
Pittsburgh got the ball to start the first half but a tackle for loss by Patrick O'Connor led to a quick three-and-out. The ensuing punt went into the Bucs' end zone for a touchback. Griffin got the ball out to the 38-yard line but the Bucs eventually had to punt it back. The Steelers quickly got into scoring territory on a weaving 59-yard catch-and-run by wideout Johnny Holton. Rudolph hit tight end Zach Gentry on a slow-developing three-yard touchdown pass two plays later.
After an exchange of punts, Tampa Bay clawed back into within one score with a long touchdown drive keyed by two Griffin completions to Justin Watson for a total of 38 yards. TE Antony Auclair also hauled in a 26-yard touch pass to get the ball into scoring range. Ogunbowale capped the march with a sharp cut and a dive over the goal line to score on a 10-yard run. Perhaps thinking of a potential preseason end game, Arians had the offense go for two and it was unsuccessful, leaving the score at 20-16 with three minutes left in the third quarter.
However, the Steelers immediately countered with their own lengthy touchdown drive, pushing their lead back to 11 points. The drive hinged early on a pass-interference call on rookie cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, which was challenged by Arians under the league's new replay review rule but upheld. That got the ball to midfield and fourth quarterback Devlin Hodges then converted a third-and-20 with a dumpoff to Benny Snell that the running back took just past the sticks. Hodges completed the scoring drive with an eight-yard pass to wide receiver Tevin Jones on a play in which the quarterback had a very long time in the pocket to survey the field.
A 30-yard punt return by Diontae Spencer early in the fourth quarter set up Pittsburgh for another score on a short drive, with kicker Matthew Wright nailing a 42-yard field goal with nine minutes to play. Griffin responded with another lengthy drive built on four passes to Schnell for 62 yards. Hudson capped his night with one of the game's top individual highlights, a spinning one-handed touchdown catch on a ball thrown behind him in traffic. The Bucs went for two again but once again were unsuccessful. After Johnson's fumble recovery, Griffin led one more scoring drive that was capped by Ogunbowale's one-yard touchdown run with 10 seconds to go. Griffin tried to roll out and hit Ogunbowale on a potential game-tying two-point pass but it fell incomplete.