The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans held two joint practices at the AdventHealth Training Center this week before meeting for a preseason contest at Raymond James Stadium on Saturday night. By popular opinion, the Titans controlled Wednesday's joint practice and the Buccaneers were dominant on Thursday.
If Saturday's game was the tiebreaker, Tennessee swung the balance, and in fact won going away, 34-3. More to the point, in a game played almost exclusively by reserves and with limited playbooks, neither team got much going on offense during the night. The Titans pulled away with three takeaways, all of them on deflected passes, one of which was ruled a fumble return for a touchdown. That was the difference in a game that included just 445 combined yards of offense between the two teams.
Indeed, the Buccaneers didn't have much to celebrate on offense, racking up just 238 total yards and averaging 3.9 yards per play. The Bucs also fumbled the ball six times, losing it once. Tampa Bay's offense converted only two of 14 third-down opportunities and recorded 17 total rushing yards. This wasn't a particularly representative effort by the defending Super Bowl Champions, given that Tom Brady, Mike Evans and company sat out in the middle of the NFL's new three-game preseason. Tampa Bay's starters are expected to play much more extensively in next weekend's game at Houston.
With Brady out, Blaine Gabbert started under center and directed the first two drives, with fellow veteran Ryan Griffin finishing out the first half. The Bucs gave the entire second half to rookie second-round draft pick Kyle Trask, who completed 13 of 26 passes for 131 yards and two interceptions. Both of his picks came on passes that bounced off his initial targets.
"It's a learning experience," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Kyle's got a long time to grow."
Tampa Bay's reserve defenders fared well despite the lopsided final score. The Buccaneers allowed only 238 total yards of offense and two of 13 third-down attempts. Rookies Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Grant Stuard had sacks, as did third-year defensive lineman Patrick O'Connor. O'Connor had a strong outing with three tackles and two tackles for loss to go with his sack and was one of the night's big winners in terms of the upcoming roster cuts.
"There's one or two guys – Grant, he might have made it. There's a few guys that…I know Pat made it in this game because he's just done it. Whether Khalil [Davis] has enough on tape…there's guys playing for jobs. The scoreboard doesn't show it but I'm not looking at the score, I'm looking at individuals."
Tight end Tanner Hudson led the Buccaneers in receiving for the second straight game, hauling in six passes for 74 yards. That included a 26-yard connection with Griffin in which the ball popped after he hit the ground, a play that was eventually ruled a fumble and a 42-yard touchdown return by Briean Brody-Calhoun early in the second half. Fellow tight end O.J. Howard caught three passes for 24 yards but also failed to grab two early passes from Gabbert.
The Buccaneers had the ball first and got to midfield thanks largely to two catches by Tyler Johnson, one of which converted the game's first down. However, Howard couldn't haul in a well-thrown pass by Gabbert downfield on third-and-two and the game's first drive ended in a punt. That set the game's early tone, as each of the game's first four possessions ended in punts. Tennessee's second drive was particularly feeble as O'Connor and cornerback Antonio Hamilton had back-to-back tackles of Titans running back Jeremy McNichols – a former Bucs' draft pick – for losses in the backfield.
The Bucs' third drive ended in their own territory after a failed fourth down. After Howard's second drop of the game, rookie wideout Jaelon Darden caught a third-down pass on third-and-13 but did not manage to get to the sticks after a catch in the left flat. The Bucs hustled up to go for it on fourth-and-one but Giovani Bernard was stuffed on a run up the middle.
That created a prime scoring opportunity for the Titans, and Matt Barkley immediately hit wide receiver Nick Westbrook-Ikhine for an 18-yard gain to the Bucs' 43. Wideout Chester Rogers' 15-yard catch got the ball into the end zone and four plays later the Titans faced a fourth-and-one at Tampa Bay's five. A rollout pass to running back Mekhi Sargent not only converted the fourth down but got the ball into the end zone for the game's first points.
The Titans increased their lead to 10-0 five minutes into the second quarter with a 43-yard field goal drive that was enabled by a handful of missed tackles by the Buccaneers' defense. However, a key stop by rookie inside linebacker K.J. Britt helped force the kick that Sam Ficken nailed from 48 yards out.
The Buccaneers got on the board before the first half ended when Ryan Succop nailed a 49-yard field goal to complete a six play drive that included catches of nine and eight yards by Howard. A third-down out to Howard failed, leading to the field goal attempt. The short drive was set up by O'Connor's sack of Titans quarterback Logan Woodside, which led to a punt.
The Titans added three more points before halftime on a 58-yard field goal by Ficken at the end of a 39-yard two-minute drill. Relentless pressure by Tryon, including a 10-yard sack with 13 seconds to play kept the visitors from getting to the end zone.
Tennessee increased its lead to 17 points in the third quarter on a controversial play that was ruled an interception by cornerback Briean Boddy-Calhoun. Trask's first pass of the game found Hudson down the middle of the field for a gain of 26 but the ball popped up into the air after Hudson was tackled by Bradley McDougald. Boddy-Calhoun caught the ball in midair and returned it 42 yards for the score. The Bucs challenged the call but it was upheld.
The Titans put the game out of reach late in the third quarter with a 76-yard drive culminating in Woodside's 23-yard touchdown pass to Dez Fitzpatrick to make it 27-3. Early in the final period, Trask's pass intended for Cyril Grayson bounced off the helmet of Tennessee's Elijah Molden and was intercepted by safety Clayton Geathers. Two plays later Barkley hit Mason Kinsey on a 26-yard touchdown pass to make it 34-3.
Trask and the Buccaneers tried to cut into the lead in the fourth quarter but a deep pass by Trask to Hudson deflected off the diving tight end's hands and was intercepted by safety Jamal Carter. Carter returned the pick 34 yards to the Bucs' 16 but the Titans eventually turned it over on downs.