Ninety men wanted to make a good impression on first-year Head Coach Greg Schiano on Friday night in Miami. Quite a few of them did just that, and in the process gave Tampa Bay Buccaneer fans a very favorable first impression of the Schiano era.
The Buccaneers opened their 2012 preseason with a 20-7 drubbing of the host Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium on Friday, riding a promising rushing attack to an early lead and keeping the Dolphins out of the end zone for most of three quarters despite rotating in dozens of young defenders.
The most encouraging aspect of the night was a powerful first-half ground game led by third-year back LeGarrette Blount and his new backfield partner, rookie RB Doug Martin.
"It was good. Everything that we've practiced is coming to life. We've been well-prepared for it and we've executed everything to almost perfection. We scored on our first two drives, and that's what you always plan to do. We came out to put points on the board, and the offense is just clicking."
Blount started the game and played just one drive but carried the ball seven times for 30 yards and caught one three-yard pass. Four of those seven runs came after the Bucs gained a first-and-goal at the six, as Blount made a fourth-and-goal gamble pay off with a flying leap over the line for a one-yard score. Martin, who served as the third-down back on that opening drive, took over primary backfield duties on the second drive and picked up 28 yards on eight touchdowns (seven runs, one catch). He, too, scored on a dive over the line, converting a third-and-goal from the two with an impressive second effort.
The Bucs ran primarily between the tackles, making good use of Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks, the latter one of the team's most important offseason acquisitions. The Bucs also kept starter Josh Freeman and the rest of the Bucs' quarterbacks clean, allowing zero sacks on the evening.
"I'm a firm believer that you're only going to be as good as your line is, and that goes for defensive or offensive line," said Nicks. "As an offensive line here, being able to protect Josh is important. He's capable of greatness, we just have to give him time."
The Bucs ran the ball on 34 of their 58 snaps overall. The numbers weren't overwhelming – 86 yards and an average of 2.5 yards per carry – but by following their stated intention of establishing a powerful running game early, they put their quarterbacks in position to succeed. Freeman and top reserve Dan Orlovsky threw only one incompletion in 13 combined attempts and neither was picked off. Freeman was four of five for 41 yards on his only drive, while Orlovsky played into the third quarter and completed all eight of his throws for 91 yards. Brett Ratliff played most of the second half and hit on six of 11 passes for 51 yards, helping Tampa Bay quarterbacks produce a combined passer rating of 96.4.
New Bucs WR Vincent Jackson didn't have any passes come his way during his one drive in the game, and indeed most of the team's 18 completions went to players battling to fill out the receiving corps. They were led by fourth-year player Tiquan Underwood, another Buc newcomer, who caught a team-leading three passes for 76 yards. That included a 44-yard grab that he pulled away from safety Jimmy Wilson inside the Dolphins' 10 to set up Martin's touchdown.
Underwood had been one of the standouts of the Bucs' first week of training camp and was pleased to take that into game night.
"We're just trying to take what we do in practice into the game," he said. "I feel confident and comfortable out there. We're just trying to play Buccaneers football. It feels really good, just to get the respect of my teammates and also the coaches. I'm just trying to go out there, play my heart out, and earn that trust from my coaches."
The Bucs' defense pitched a first-half shutout, though many of its starters played only two series. LB Lavonte David killed one of Miami's best scoring opportunities with an interception of a tipped ball, and CB Anthony Gaitor denied the Dolphins on fourth-and-goal with an alert pass-breakup just before halftime. Gaitor was one of the team's top defenders on the night, collecting four tackles and a pass defensed.
The Bucs deflected eight Miami passes on the night, including a final two when the Dolphins were once again inside the Tampa Bay 10. LB Jacob Cutrera and CB James Rogers denied the home team a second touchdown by getting their hands on successive third-and-goal and fourth-and-goal throws.
First-year K Kai Forbath scored the Bucs' only points of the second half, hitting on field goals of 41 and 24 yards. Miami veteran Dan Carpenter missed both of his field goal tries, though they were 51 and 50-yarders, respectively, that he just pushed right.
Both teams dug deep into their depth charts as the second half began, and neither offense could get much going in the early part of the third quarter. Orlovsky was given one more drive but two runs by rookie Michael Smith and a pass to the same back gained only three yards. Likewise, the Dolphins went three-and-out in their first drive of the half behind the rookie Tannehill.
Third-string QB Brett Ratliff came in for the next possession but didn't pick up a first down in his Buccaneer debut. However Tannehill got the Dolphins moving on his second drive of the half, converting a third-and-11 with a 19-yard completion to Ricardo Wallace. Tannehill went on to complete seven of eight passes on the drive, overcoming a potentially-costly holding penalty and eventually hitting Clay on an 11-yard TD pass to cut the Bucs' lead in half.
Smith got the Bucs right back into scoring territory with a 74-yard kickoff return to the Miami 27 that included several broken tackles before midfield, though CB Marcus Brown tracked him down to prevent a touchdown. The Bucs could only advance four yards from there but K Kai Forbath pushed the Bucs' lead back to double-digits by nailing a 41-yard field goal.
Tannehill followed with another impressive drive, kept alive early when the rookie sniffed out a big Buc blitz on third-and-nine and dumped the ball off to RB Lamar Miller for a gain of 12. An 18-yarder to Wallace in the right flat got the ball into Tampa Bay territory but a third-down pass break-up by rookie LB Najee Goode forced Miami to settle for a 50-yard field goal try that Dan Carpenter pushed to the right.
Ratliff's next drive started at the Bucs' 40 and went better, as he completed a third-and-11 with a sharp pass down the seam to WR Wallace Wright and then turned a third-and-five over with a six-yard out to TE Danny Noble. Subsequent completions to Greg Ellingson and Ed Gant got the ball to the Miami 10, setting up Forbath for a 24-yard field goal to make it 20-7.
The Dolphins were the next to threaten after TE Michael Egnew caught a 31-yard pass from fourth-string QB Pat Devlin with five minutes to play. LB Jacob Cutrera made a nice leaping deflection of the pass but Egnew dived to the turf to make the catch. The Dolphins barely converted a fourth-and-four at the Bucs' 20, then again at the 12.
- Little mistakes are generally more common in preseason play, particularly in the early weeks. Still, Schiano is likely to focus on penalties with his defense after the line drew four offside calls on Miami's first three drives. Overall, it wasn't too bad, as the Bucs were flagged just six times for 36 yards.
- The Bucs got a lot of players into the mix in their secondary in the early going, while the starters were still nominally involved. Rookie S Mark Barron, who has been dealing with a minor toe injury, was held out and the start at strong safety went to third-year vet Cody Grimm. Third-year player Myron Lewis started at left cornerback with Aqib Talib sidelined by a hamstring strain, and second-year man Anthony Gaitor came in as the first nickel back, with starting right CB Eric Wright moving into the slot. On the second drive, with a mix of starters still in, both rookie S Keith Tandy and second-year S Ahmad Black were on the field in various packages.
- The Buccaneers ran their second drive with a mix of starters and reserves. Most notably, Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks got an early exit and were replaced by Derek Hardman and Ted Larsen, respectively.
- LB Lavonte David got a lot of action and made a quick impression, on both defense and special teams. In addition to his interception deep in Bucs territory in the second quarter, he also made an impressive open-field tackle on return man Rishard Matthews near the end of the first half. David stayed in the game long after most of the starting defenders had finished their tours of duty, as the coaching staff obviously wanted to get a long look at their second-round rookie.
- Third-year DT Gerald McCoy saw his first game action since Week Five of the 2011 season after returning from a biceps injury. McCoy posted a tackle and a tackle for loss in less than one quarter of work, and thoroughly enjoyed himself in the process. "It was fun. It was great to get back out there and hit another team. I loved going out there with my teammates. It's just another practice for us, but I enjoyed it."
- The use of replay was quite evident on Friday night, even though neither team threw a challenge flag. The replay system now calls for automatic reviews of all scoring plays and turnovers, and one each by the Dolphins got some extra scrutiny. A fumbled punt by WR Preston Parker in the first half was recovered by Miami and, eventually, upheld. However, an apparent touchdown catch by WR Roberto Wallace just before halftime was overturned. That kept the Bucs' first-half shutout alive as the Dolphins went for it on fourth-and-goal and failed.