The one good thing about preseason struggles is that they do, in fact, occur in the preseason.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers had difficulty moving the ball in rookie QB Jameis Winston's first start and gave up several short-field touchdown drives in the first half of a 26-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings on Saturday night. The game will serve as a learning experience for Winston and many young Buccaneers, and while it wasn't the encouraging start the team had hoped for, it can easily be washed away by opening day.
Winston personally began that process late in the second quarter with a well-managed 76-yard touchdown drive in a hurry-up offense. He completed five of six passes for 60 yards on the march and finished it himself with an eight-yard touchdown run, diving over the goal line for his first NFL score. Prior to that, the rookie passer sailed a couple of his early passes, including one that was intercepted by S Antone Exum early in the second quarter. Winston also absorbed two sacks and had to deal with a pair of botched center exchanges.
"Yeah, he finished strong," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "You know, we didn't start exactly where we wanted to, but at the end he threw some good balls and got us in position to get a couple scores.
"That's the type of player he is. He's thrown good passes through camp. He's going to throw an awful lot for us this year. You have to have a first game, you have to work through some of those things, and that's what he's doing."
Overall, Winston completed seven of 15 passes for 117 yards and the one interception while rushing four times for 18 yards and the Bucs' lone score of the first half. His favorite target was Louis Murphy, who hauled in four passes for 54 yards. Winston's top highlight against Minnesota's starting defense was a pretty 40-yard deep ball to WR Vincent Jackson that converted a long third down.
"I have so much confidence in this kid," said Jackson of Winston. "I think he's going to have a great year. He's just so smart. He's picked up everything fast and he sees things on the field that a veteran sees. It's a lot of fun playing with him. We work on a lot of things and communicate each and every day in practice and we are going to continue to make big plays. He's an aggressive guy, he wants to stand there in the pocket. You can see he's not scared to stand in there and deliver the ball down the field and that's going to help us this year."
Winston was supported by a fairly successful first-half rushing attack, as starter Doug Martin looked sharp early and reserves Charles Sims and Bobby Rainey both had their moments. Tampa Bay's ground game produced 68 yards on 18 carries (4.3 avg.) before halftime. In the second half, third-year back Mike James contributed heavily to the offense with 44 combined rushing and receiving yards and a three-yard touchdown run.
Perhaps the issue of most lasting significance to both teams was a rash of injuries to starting right tackles. Minnesota's Phil Loadholt left the game on the opening possession, and a Vikings sideline report indicated that he had suffered a potentially serious leg injury. Just before halftime, the Buccaneers'
Demar Dotson had to be helped off the field after hurting his right knee, with early indications being an injury of some significance.
Those looking for good news to balance that injury misfortune could point to the Buccaneers' run defense, which allowed just 34 yards on 13 carries in the first half and 104 by game's end. The starting defense, which played roughly one quarter, was particularly stingy on the ground, with LB Lavonte David and CB Alterraun Verner leading the way. David had three tackles and a one stop for loss in a brief amount of playing time (he left before most of the other starters. Verner, who was quite strong against the run in his first year as a Buccaneer in 2014, believes he can duplicate that success and make a big difference in the pass defense in 2015.
"I lost some weight during the offseason, so just to go out here and make a couple tackles, a couple plays in that area, gave me a sense of a boost, feeling like I can still defend the ground but now I also feel that I can do a lot more in the passing game with the weight that I am now," he said. "So it was a good first start for me, but we still have to build and we have a long way to go."
On the other hand, the Buccaneers did not get off to a particularly good start on special teams. Punters Michael Koenen and Karl Schmitz combined to post a 33.3-yard net average that gave Minnesota favorable field position much of the night. In the second half, Schmitz did get off boots of 57 and 56 yards, while Koenen hit his own 56-yarder. Rookie Kenny Bell looked sharp on two kickoff returns while averaging 22.5 yards, but fellow rookie Kaelin Clay averaged 18 yards on two kickoff returns and -1 yards on a pair of punt returns. Clay made sharp cuts but kept several returns alive just long enough to lose yardage. Tampa Bay's coverage units allowed Viking punt returners to average 18.0 yards on five runbacks.
The Bucs also didn't do much to disrupt the Vikings' passing attack in the first two quarters. Starter Teddy Bridgewater completed seven of eight passes for 86 yards and second-stringer Shaun Hill hit on eight of nine tries before halftime for another 104 yards and two scores. Bridgewater and Hill combined for a passer rating of 152.5 in the first half. DT Henry Melton had the Buccaneers' only sack of the first half, taking Hill down for a loss of nine in the second quarter.
"Clinton [McDonald] called up a little game and he made a lot of it happen for me," said Melton, one of the team's key offseason free agency acquisitions. "I came out scot-free and had to wrap him up. A lot of the success on this defense comes from the d-line, so any chance we get that can help us get to the quarterbacks, we're all about it."
Drive by drive highlights:
The Vikings got the ball first and picked up 18 yards on the opening play from scrimmage when Bridgewater rolled left and hit TE Kyle Rudolph just past a diving Buc defender. The first run play against the Bucs went nowhere when Jerick McKinnon was stopped for no gain by DT Gerald McCoy, but McCoy jumped offside on the next snap. Minnesota got into Bucs' territory on a crossing route to WR Jarius Wright that picked up 26. CB Johnthan Banks prevented a deep pass into the end zone to WR Mike Wallace to make it third-and-eight from the Bucs' 31. A good open-field tackle by CB Alterraun Verner forced the Vikings to settle for Blair Walsh's 46-yard field goal to open the scoring.
The Buccaneers rode Martin early, giving it to him on the first four plays of their opening drive. He got five, eight and seven yards on his first three totes but lost a yard on the fourth one, setting up third-and-four and Winston's first NFL pass. He tried to get it to TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins but it was broken up by LB Chad Greenway.
The Vikings' second drive was a quick three-and-out as David trapped McKinnon for a loss of two on first down and Verner made another fine tackle on second down. Bridgewater had to settle for an underneath toss to McKinnon on third-and-14 and it wasn't close to moving the sticks.
The Bucs also went three-and-out on drive number two, with Winston throwing incomplete on third-and-10 as his arm was hit while he threw. On the ensuing punt return, CB Marcus Sherels evaded several tacklers to get back to the Bucs' 38. Three plays later, Bridgewater found Wright wide open near the left sideline for a gain of 24 to the Bucs' three. FB Zach Line scored on a one-yard plunge on second-and-goal to make it 9-0. The Vikings went for two but failed when Bridgewater scrambled towards the end zone but was pulled down shy of the goal line.
Everson Griffen got rookie Donovan Smith on a spin move on the first play of the next Bucs drive and had a straight shot at Winston for a nine-yard sack. After a Winston scramble for five yards, the rookie QB got his first NFL completion on a beautiful deep pass down the left side to Jackson. Jackson's diving catch gave the Bucs 40 yards to the Minnesota 42, and Sims broke tackles for 11 yards on his first career. Louis Murphy got 17 yards on a toe-tapping catch on the next play for a first down at the Viking 14. Three plays later, on third-and-10, Jackson ran a curl near the goal line but S Robert Blanton got there just in time to knock the pass away. The Bucs brought in K Patrick Murray, who banged home a 32-yard field goal.
The Bucs' defense got another three-and-out on the next drive, capped by Melton's nine-yard sack. The Bucs had mostly defensive starters on the field for the first play of the march but went to mostly reserves against backup QB Shaun Hill and Viking reserves after the first quarter ended and the teams switched sides.
The Bucs' offense came back out with Winston still at the helm but a mix of starters and reserves. After a two-yard Bobby Rainey run, Winston threw high in the direction of WR Mike Evans and the pass was intercepted by S Antone Exum. Exum returned the pick to Tampa Bay's 23. Three plays later, on third-and-eight, Hill found WR Cordarrelle Patterson on a vertical route for a 21-yard touchdown.
Winston got one more drive and tried to hit Evans deep on first down, only to have it broken up at the last moment. After a six-yard run on a draw by Rainey, the third-down shotgun snap came back too hot to handle and Winston had to cover it up for a loss of 13. The Bucs' defense got the ball back quickly thanks in part to a taunting penalty on Patterson but couldn't do much with it. Another botched quarterback-center exchange put the offense in a hole and Winston's third-down scramble out of the end zone was well short of moving the sticks. Rookie P Karl Schmitz helped Minnesota get good field position with a shanked punt that went just 25 yards to the Bucs' 34.
The Vikings used that short field to drive for another touchdown on four plays, capped by WR Adam Thielen's 15-yard catch-and-run. That put the Vikings up, 23-3, but the Bucs' offense did manage to use the remaining four minutes of the half to drive into scoring territory.
Winston started a fast-paced attack with an 18-yard completion to TE Luke Stocker. After short passes to Rainey and Murphy, Winston threw a perfect deep out to Murphy near the right sideline for another 18 to the Minnesota 23. A five-yard run by Rainey brought on the two-minute warning and a seven-yard grab by Murphy gave the Bucs a first down at Minnesota's 11. On third-and-seven from the eight, Winston scrambled over right guard and dashed for the end zone, diving into the end zone for the score. The Bucs went for two but failed, leaving the score at 23-9.
The Buccaneers head out to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in their first game of the 2015 preseason.
Thielen caught a short outlet pass on third-and-seven for the Vikings and ran down an open right sideline for 39 yards into Buccaneer territory in the game's final minute. However, Tampa Bay got one more chance for Winston when Line fumbled and DE Lawrence Sidbury, Jr. recovered at the 36. A 13-yard run by Mike James gave the Bucs a chance to throw a Hail Mary pass into the end zone with one second left, but it was broken up to end the half.
Glennon took over under center in the second half but his first drive failed to pick up a first down, thanks in part to a false start on the first snap. James picked up six yards on a screen pass but Glennon's third-down toss in WR Robert Herron's direction was off target. A 37-yard punt return by WR Stefon Diggs put Minnesota right back into scoring territory. The Bucs' defense held but Walsh banged home a 42-yard field goal to make it 26-9.
The Bucs got a scoring opportunity five minutes into the third quarter when Sidbury forced a fumble by RB Joe Banyard and CB Leonard Johnson recovered at the Minnesota 31. A screen pass to James converted a third-and-six and set up a first down for the Bucs at the Vikings' 17. The Bucs faced a third-and-eight three plays later but converted again when Herron ran a square-in, caught a 12-yard pass and held on through a hard hit. James ran it in on the next play, dancing in almost untouched.
The Vikings answered with a long drive led by third-string quarterback Taylor Heinicke that reached inside the Bucs' 20-yard line. However, RB Dominique Williams fumbled at the end of a 16-yard run and the ball went into and out of the back of the end zone for a touchback, killing the scoring chance.
The Bucs began their next drive with a short pass that Herron turned into a 26-yard gain, and Glennon then threw a 24-yard dart to rookie WR Adam Humphries, down to the Vikings' 29. The drive stalled before getting another first down, however, and Murray pushed a 42-yard field goal try just barely wide of the right upright.
Seth Lobato came in to quarterback the Bucs' next drive and got a first down on a 16-yard out to TE Cameron Brate. However, the drive ended when LB Eric Kendricks ran straight up the middle on a third-down blitz and dropped Lobato for a loss of nine.
The Bucs got the ball back with four minutes to play and brought Glennon back in to get work in a two-minute drill. He started the march with completions of eight and 15 yards to rookie WR Donteea Dye but the drive stalled on a pair of incompletions and a short pass to RB Dominique Brown.