Bruce Arians was understandably pleased that Tom Brady and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starting offense finished the preseason with a very strong showing Saturday night in Houston. In a way, the Buccaneers head coach also didn't mind that the offense bogged down after Brady and company hit the bench.
Tampa Bay held a 13-0 lead after three drives for each team on Saturday, and Arians pulled his starters on both sides at that point. The Bucs would go on to win the game 23-16, but not before the Texans had several opportunities to take the lead. That created a more competitive atmosphere in the second half, which was a better environment in which to judge the young players still fighting for roster spots.
"There's a lot at stake in that ballgame, especially going into that third and fourth quarter," said Arians. "I was happy the game was close so guys could show themselves, and a couple guys did. It really couldn't have worked out any better in that ballgame for us, as far as the evaluation process."
The Bucs got just three points out of their second-string offense, led by Blaine Gabbert, but Tampa Bay's defense, first and second-stringers, held the Houston offense scoreless in the first half. The visitors held a 16-2 lead at halftime, Houston's only points coming on a safety after a botched snap. The second half featured a matchup of two quarterbacks who were selected three picks apart in the 2021 draft, Tampa Bay's Kyle Trask and Houston's Davis Mills. Trask directed one touchdown drive and finished with a passer rating of 133.9; Mills got his team into the end zone twice but also threw three interceptions.
Two of those picks were snared by cornerback Dee Delaney, including one that ended Houston's final possession in a one-score game. According to Arians, Delaney was the one player on the 'bubble' who helped himself the most on Saturday night. With the cutdown to 53 looming on Tuesday, Delaney is battling with Herb Miller, Antonio Hamilton and Chris Wilcox for a fifth and possibly sixth cornerback spot.
"I guess the only one that really stood out was Dee Delaney, that really helped himself," said Arians, adding that Delaney played well on special teams, also. "We're still in the process of evaluating those last five spots, but he helped his cause."
Rookie wide receiver Jaelon Darden got extensive playing time in the preseason finale, both on offense and special teams. He's competing for the punt and kickoff return job and notably has gotten the lion's share of the reps at those spots in the past two games. On Saturday, he had one punt return for 17 yards and one kickoff return for 16 yards, and on the former he out-raced most of the coverage team to get around the corner on the right sideline. Darden also had three catches for 35 yards, including a 26-yarder from Trask one play before Codey McElroy's 20-yard touchdown catch. However, the rookie fourth-rounder ran the wrong route on one play in the second quarter, leading to a Gabbert interception.
"Return game-wise, he's fine," said Arians of Darden. "We've got to block for him better, give him a chance, but he showed his speed getting around the corner and doing some of those things. Receiver-wise, he's still learning the nuances of different coverages – do you run this route versus that, and this and that? So the dependability isn't quite where it can be. When he knows what he's doing, it's impressive. We've just got to do a better job of getting him to know what he's doing."
Second-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn also soaked up a lot of snaps, with Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones leaving the game with the first-teamers and Giovani Bernard getting dinged up in the second quarter. Vaughn, who has also been getting first-team reps as a gunner on the punt team, gained 29 yards on 15 carries but was also involved in a botched handoff that led to a forced fumble charged to Trask. Vaughn also had a fumble on a kickoff return but the Bucs recovered that one.
Vaughn is competing for the fourth running back spot and a significant role on special teams, the latter of which would help him stay on the active list on game days. At the moment, his path to a special teams job seems more likely to come from his coverage skills than what he can add in the return game.
"As a runner he's fine and he did a heck of a job as a gunner," said Arians. "His return ability is up in the air. He's more of a running back looking for a hole instead of just hitting it as a kick returner. But he gets us out of a ballgame. He's a good off-returner for sure because he will block."
Rookie offensive lineman Robert Hainsey played the majority of the game at center, and it was his snap that led to the safety. Hainsey was making his preseason debut, having missed the first two games due to injury. A standout early in camp, the former Notre Dame star saw his progress slowed by the injury; as a third-round pick with valuable versatility he is very unlikely to be cut on Tuesday but it may be a little longer before he has a prominent role on game days.
Hainsey is listed as the second center behind Ryan Jensen on the current depth chart but in game the Buccaneers would probably bring Aaron Stinnie in first and shift left guard Ali Marpet to center, at least early in the season.
"We'd probably go with Ali and bring Aaron in, and just bring Hainsey along as slow and easy as we possibly can," said Arians.
In this scenario, Stinnie would be active on game day but not in the starting lineup, as it appears incumbent Alex Cappa has held onto his starting job at right guard. Cappa started the first 17 games of last season at that spot but suffered an ankle injury in the Wild Card win at Washington. That opened the door for Stinnie to get his first extensive playing time and he was impressive in the final three games of the postseason. Arians recently said that the battle between those two was still close but Cappa's performance on Saturday seems to have nearly sealed the job.
"Cap probably graded out the highest of the offensive line," said Arians. "He had a really good ballgame. So that's pretty solidified. Aaron [Stinnie] is much better on the right side than he is the left but he got a bunch of left-side snaps, so he did get better that way. We're very confident in both those guys."
Neither Cappa nor Stinnie were in any real danger of losing their spots on the 53-man roster, of course, but some of the young players who followed them into the game on Saturday were – and still are – on that proverbial bubble. Arians said the Bucs' staff would meet all day on Sunday regarding the final five or so decisions that must be made before Tuesday's deadline. Though it is only part of the evaluation process, Saturday's down-to-the-wire game provided Arians and his crew with a lot of useful data for those decisions.