The Tampa Bay Buccaneers dropped their 2022 preseason opener to the Miami Dolphins, 26-24, on Saturday night, and it's fitting that the final play – and the decisive play – was a special teams snap.
Second-year quarterback Kyle Trask led an impressive two-minute drill at the end of regulation, most notably digging his team out of a third-and-21 hole with a 20-yard completion to rookie wideout Jerreth Sterns on fourth down. His 16-yard pass to another rookie, Deven Thompkins, put the ball at the Dolphins' 16 and the subsequent spike stopped the clock with 26 seconds left. Rather than trying to air it out again to get closer, the Buccaneers ran Kenjon Barner up the middle and, after no gain, let the clock run down to three seconds before calling timeout.
That decision was unsurprising. The Bucs were sending out strong-legged first-year kicker Jose Borregales for the potential game-winner and, given the preseason setting, probably preferred to challenge him with a longer kick. Borregales was initially up to that challenge, drilling his first attempt through the uprights, but the Dolphins had timed their "icing" timeout well and he had to do it again. This time, the ball didn't come off his foot well and the wobbly kick hit the right upright and fell to the ground, unsuccessful.
As such, Borregales, who is in a very tight battle with incumbent veteran Ryan Succop for the Bucs' placekicking job, came up just short of a big night. That strong leg was on display earlier when he easily drilled a 55-yard field goal that gave the home team a brief 24-23 lead in the second half. He also made all three of his extra-point tries, which are now the equivalent of a 33-yard field goal, and even executed two kickoffs, both of which made the end zone but were run out. That last point is significant in that the kickoff job is presumed to go to rookie punter Jake Camarda but could become another competition if Borregales makes the roster.
It's doubtful that one long kick will be the difference in the Borregales-Succop compettion, but Head Coach Todd Bowles has stated that the reps under the lights would hold more weight than practice-field drills, in which both kickers have been close to flawless so far. Borregales will need to demonstrate that his one second-chance miss is the exception.
"If you're dependable, then you're a good kicker," said Bowles on Monday. "The job is to make them consistently and you've got to make them consistently. You're going to miss one every now and then, but you've got to be consistent overall."
The Buccaneers and Dolphins signaled what Saturday's game was about well before it even began. Both teams submitted a pregame list of players who would be held out of action, and it was essentially a list of all the starters. This was a showcase for younger players and those farther down on the depth chart, and on a night like that special teams becomes particularly important. Many of those players understand that carving out a role on special teams is the best way to secure a roster spot and a helmet on game days.
There was a lot for the Bucs to see in that phase of the game. It was, for instance, the NFL debut of Camarda, on whom the team spent a fourth-round pick in this year's draft. Camarda's very first kick seemed to come off the side of his foot a bit and went for just 42 yards without much hang time, leading to a 13-yard return. However, he later blasted a 51-yarder and dropped one inside the Dolphins' 20, finishing with a gross punting average of 45.5 yards. Camarda also produced two touchbacks on kickoffs, though he had another one go out of bounds for a penalty to start the second half.
There was further evidence in the battle for roster spots outside of the final stats table. Undrafted rookie safety played the most special teams snaps on the team with 15, or 48% of the total. Inside linebacker J.J. Russell, defensive lineman Mike Greene, outside linebackers Jordan Young and Andre Anthony and cornerbacks Dee Delaney and Rashard Robinson were also all regulars on coverage teams. Young, another undrafted rookie, stood out with a tackle and a forced fumble on special teams, which can only help him in a wide-open competition for the fifth OLB spot.
"All of them are playing hard – all of them had some plus plays and some minus plays as well," said Bowles of the young players at that spot. "It's a tough position. After the first four, they've got to be consistent on [special] teams. Obviously, some of them made plays. [Elijah] Ponder is a good pass rusher – it's about the scheme though. That will be the next two games, as well."
Also of note was the busy night that Thompkins, an undrafted wide receiver, and Rachaad White, a third-round running back, had in the return game. White got the first two reps on kickoff return and produced 43 yards, with a long of 26. Thompkins got the first look at punt return and also got a shot at kickoff return near the end of the first half. In the latter role he had a fine 24-yard return called back by a penalty.
Bowles said that some of the team's starters will see more action in the next two preseason games, so the overall snap totals for the younger roster hopefuls will necessarily go down a little bit. Still, there are sure to be plenty of special teams reps to go around, and those could end up being deciding factors when the final cuts roll around. There was plenty to consider in that regard on Saturday night.