The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first drive in last Saturday's preseason opener in Minnesota, with rookie quarterback Jameis Winston at the helm, produced one rushing first down but included no complete passes. The second drive when three-and-out. However, on Tampa Bay's third possession, a pretty 40-yard pass to wide receiver Vincent Jackson on a long third down keyed a nine-play, 64-yard field goal drive. Winston's crew struggled for three more possessions after that but finished the first half strong with a touchdown drive in a two-minute drill and another last-second march to midfield to set up a Hail Mary.
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The Buccaneers' coaching staff was pleased that Winston shook off some early miscues to finish his NFL debut strong, but the bottom line on the scoreboard at halftime was 23-9 in the home team's favor. For Winston and the Bucs' offense to take a useful step forward in Game Two of the preseason, they will likely need to get off to a faster starter.
Photos from the Bucs' final training camp practice of 2015.
"That's what we want to do," said Smith. "We have to as a team. Of course Jameis is a part of that. Last time we played Cincinnati [during the 2014 regular season] it was a fast start. Defensively we got a takeaway on the first play of the game. Yes, as a football team, we need to start faster. I think we had one turnover last [week]. We don't want to have any turnovers on the offensive side and we want to really win that turnover ratio."
That turnover was an interception on a Winston pass thrown over the head of wide receiver Mike Evans, and it was the Buccaneers' only giveaway of the game. It was the most obvious play in the negative column for the rookie passer, just like his long hookup with Jackson was the top positive highlight. In a less visible but equally important sense, Winston commanded the offense well, and that is one reason to believe a faster start is possible in Game Two.
"What did I like about what he did?" said Quarterbacks Coach Mike Bajakian. "I would say how he managed the line of scrimmage, how he managed the offense was what we asked him to do. Obviously, you'd like to have a couple of the throws back and the interception, but overall his communication with the rest of the offense, his command – like we've talked about since Day One – of the huddle, of the line of scrimmage was very good. And then obviously, he bounced back. After that interception he led that drive down for a touchdown and scored with a good play."
How can Winston and the Buccaneers start faster this week? Some of it is as simple as Winston making better throws, and some of it will involve improving on the things he did well in the first outing.
"Progress," said Bajakian, listing the areas in which he'd like to see Winston take a step forward. "Making some of the throws that he missed. Being on the same page with his wide receivers, tight ends, things like that. Playing the pitch-and-catch game. Obviously, continued progress and management of the offense, and just general improvement. There are a couple of things physically he can improve. Every day, he's coming out to work, and every day he's getting there."
If the Bucs can start fast on offense, they believe they already have a player who can finish. Winston seems comfortable in a hurry-up attack, as he showed against the Vikings.
"He's sharp," said Bajakian. "Going up-tempo, going two-minute, going no-huddle, that's not an issue for him because he can process information very quickly. He's picked up the offense quicker than I anticipated he would."
Additional notes from Saturday's practice:
- The Buccaneers technically wrapped up training camp with Saturday's practice, though this particular workout was more like a regular-season session than the usual camp proceedings. The Bucs ran through 15 periods instead of the camp standard of 10, with most of them featuring the starting offense or defense against a scout team on the other side. After praising his team's practice efforts on Thursday, Smith said the Saturday session also earned a checkmark.
"Good practice today," he said. "I've been in Tampa a few years and this is about as hot, I think, as I've seen it around here, but the guys made it through."
- Cornerback Sterling Moore, one of the Buccaneers' key free agency acquisitions in the spring, has recently begun auditioning for a new job on the team's depth chart, though that doesn't exactly represent a change in the team's plans.
The Buccaneers believe that the 5-10, 202-pound Moore has the size and skills to play the nickel corner position, a key spot in the Tampa Two defense that was perfected for so many years by Ronde Barber. However, for much of the offseason they had the former Dallas Cowboy practicing at the outside corner positions, as part of a concerted effort to test and develop their depth at that position. Satisfied with what they have seen from Moore in that regard, the coaches have now inserted him into the competition at nickel back.
Moore played outside cornerback in the preseason opener at Minnesota, with Leonard Johnson and Isaiah Frey splitting most of the nickel reps. That's likely to change on Monday night against Cincinnati. That means a new focus for Moore, who knows both jobs well and understands how they differ.
"Inside, you've just got to get a feel for it, the route combinations, things happen fast," he said. "Outside, you're really more focused on one guy out there. My thing is, I want to be the best outside corner when I'm on the field, I want to be the best inside corner when I'm inside on the field. That's just my mentality – I want to be the best corner on the field when I'm out there."
Photos of fans who attended the Buccaneers' 2015 training camp.
During Barber's long run as a star in the Bucs' defense, he usually played on the outside in base packages and then moved into the slot when a third corner came onto the field. That's the same role that Orlando Scandrick played last year in Dallas, so Moore, despite being the third corner for part of the season, came on and played a huge amount of snaps on the outside. He says he doesn't have a preference between the two positions.
"It honestly doesn't matter," said Moore. "I think a lot of people think that I was a nickel last year and played inside. I just came in for the nickel package but I played 500 snaps outside. So that just goes to show that I can play both, and that's something I take pride in."
On the other hand, the notion that his transition from one team and one defense to another is a simple one because of similarities between the Bucs' and Cowboys' defenses is overblown, according to Moore. The defense that Moore excelled in last year was largely constructed by Rod Marinelli, another branch from the same Tony Dungy coaching tree who also worked with Lovie Smith in Chicago.
"Everyone says that, but it's a lot different than it is in Dallas," said Moore. "It has the same principles here and there, but there's a lot of different terminology, a lot of different footwork, things like that. So it's not as similar as most people would think."
- Rookie Kwon Alexander, the breakout player in this year's training camp, is expected to start at middle linebacker in Monday's game against the Bengals. He will be replacing Game One starter Bruce Carter, one of the team's major 2015 free agency acquisitions. Carter has been working at strongside linebacker this past week, which puts him in competition with Danny Lansanah, the starter at that spot in Game One. Both Carter and Lansanah will get an opportunity to show they deserve that job on Monday night.
"[Carter] is most comfortable out there, and what we've seen is a veteran guy and it's not like it was a big deal moving out there," said Smith. "It's not like he was out of his element being outside. He's a skilled athlete, and when you have new players you have to work to try to get them in the best spot. We're going to give that a look. He and Danny Lansanah both will play with the ones."
That strongside competition interestingly pits the linebackers who finished first and second in the NFL in interceptions last year, with Carter's five topping Lansanah's three. Lansanah had a strong offseason in that regard, seemingly picking off a pass a day during OTAs, and he had another one near the end of Saturday's practice.
"That's what he normally does," said Smith of Lansanah. "He's intercepted more passes than anybody I think since I've been around here. In situations like that, you need to come up with a big play. For us as a football team, we didn't finish enough games last year, and that's good finishing on the defensive side of the ball."