The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play their second preseason game of 2021 on Saturday night against the Tennessee Titans, and Head Coach Bruce Arians is leaning towards holding out all of his starters. The reason is simple: With two days of joint practices with those same Titans at the AdventHealth Training Center, those starters will already have plenty of competitive reps under their belts by the weekend.
And not only are those reps competitive, but they are specifically designed to produce the kind of work Arians considers most valuable right now.
"You know you're going to get all the situational work: red zone, third down, first down stuff, run-pass options," he said. "You put them in certain scenarios that sometimes never happen in a game. They ran out of offensive linemen so we missed a couple scenarios where it was 10 seconds or 16 seconds left at the end of the half or the end of the game."
For that reason, the Buccaneers and Titans wrapped up practice a bit early on Wednesday but not before they helped each other get closer to being ready for the regular season, which is now just 22 days away for the defending Super Bowl champions. The competitive periods of the practice were split onto two fields so the Bucs' offense could be battling the Titans' defense at the same time the opposite matchup was taking place.
Arians spent his time with the Bucs' offense and planned to check out how his defense fared later through the practice tape. He gave his offense a middling grade for the day – too many dropped passes was the repeated criticism – but still thought the work was very useful, particularly for those pass-catchers (and pass-droppers).
"They're very physical guys – good press coverage, very physical," said Arians of the Titans' defensive backs, who are led by safety Kevin Byard and cornerback Janoris Jenkins. "That's exactly what you want to practice against. The quarterbacks need to see those guys working those routes, other than just fade balls. Working routes against press coverage and I thought we got a lot out of that area."
Of course, the Buccaneers work on specific situations when practicing on their own, and with great frequency. But the challenge – and potential reward – is much greater when there's an unfamiliar opponent on the other side. That's what preseason games potentially offer, but without the script to make sure certain situations arise. For instance, the Buccaneers had only one red zone drive in their opener against Cincinnati last Sunday, and it was the Bengals who got to attempt the two-minute drill at the end of each half.
"It's definitely much more realistic," said guard Ali Marpet of practicing against another team. "However you still have your scenarios, right? You have your red zone period, your third down period, so it's nice just to get a different look, a look that is a little bit less scouted so that's nice. [It's] just fast and physical, which is game-like.
View some of the photos from Buccaneers Training Camp practice vs. Tennessee at the AdventHealth Training Center.
"I mean this is nice because during preseason I feel like sometimes coaches kind of hang back with some of the pressures and some of the looks that you're going to get. I feel like during these, coaches kind of throw anything at you, and that kind of makes it a little more fun."
Obviously, bringing in another team is going to raise the level of intensity on the field, though both Arians and Tennessee Head Coach Mike Vrabel had made it clear that no fighting would be tolerated. If anything, it awakens the competitive spirit of the players, which is why Tom Brady and the Bucs' offense will be determined to have a better showing in the second joint practice on Thursday.
"They're good," said Brady of the Titans' defense. "They're challenging, obviously, very good fundamentals. They play to their help all the time. Very stout in the run game. They try to confuse you in the secondary, which they did a good job of that today a few times. Obviously one of the better defenses in the league. A lot of good players. It was good work for us. Obviously the last time I talked to you guys I don't think it was a great day either – we'll have to get better tomorrow."
Brady was unconcerned by the dropped passes and considers improving the communication on offense to be the much more pressing concern. The confusion sown by the Titans' secondary revealed flaws in that communication and Brady wants to clean that up by the end of Thursday's practice.
"I think being on the same page [is the key]," he said. "It's one thing if we miss a pass, if we [drop] a pass. I'm just concerned with us doing the things that we talked about doing and executing them the right way. The throwing and catching, blocking and tackling – that's for the game. If you catch every ball out here and then go in the game and you drop it, it doesn't matter. You've got to work on the fundamentals out here, work on our communication, be on the same page and we can definitely do a much better job of that."
After practice, Arians heard from the other field that Tampa Bay's defense had put together a pretty good showing against Ryan Tannehill and the Titans' offense, though it didn't get the number of takeaways it wanted. And even if the offense was a bit shaky under Arians' watch, he considered the practice a success nonetheless.
"Really, really good practices," said Arians. "You can't get anything better than going against another team, putting in all the situations, looking at young players, veteran players. No better team to do it against than Mike and the Titans. I thought it was outstanding work.
"They're looking very physical and that's what we wanted in these practices – good, physical, tough practices, working great technique and scheme-wise. I think we accomplished that today."
* The Buccaneers' offensive backfield is starting to take shape, even if that shape won't necessarily be the same from week to week.
The preseason opener didn't offer much evidence in regards to who will be the starter between Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette. Fournette got the first snap of that game but he and Jones combined for just three carries on the opening drive before taking a seat with the rest of the Bucs' starters. Jones is listed as the first-string back on the Bucs' current depth chart but neither that nor Fournette's start on Saturday mean very much, according to Arians.
"It really won't matter who starts," said Arians. "I'm very, very confident in both of them. Ro is catching the ball really well, Leonard's running really well, so whoever's out there we've got a premier back going. It's not a matter of who comes out of the tunnel, we'll come out as an offense. Whoever gets the first series, the other guy might get the second, so it doesn't really matter."
What evidence the preseason opener did provide about the backfield had more to do with the rest of the rotation. Veteran Giovani Bernard, one of the team's few offseason additions on offense, played only four snaps but still caught two passes that converted third downs. The notion that Bernard would be the team's primary third-down back during the regular season seemed to get some confirmation with those results.
Meanwhile, second-year back Ke'Shawn Vaughn got to play a lot, and while his final numbers aren't overwhelming his performance definitely pleased the coaching staff. That went beyond his 11 carries for 27 yards and a touchdown. Vaughn also caught two of the three passes thrown his way and, perhaps most importantly, was a standout on special teams. Though he wasn't credited with a kick-coverage tackle he was he first Buccaneer down the field on the game's initial punt and his hit on return man Darius Phillips helped hold the return to just two yards.
The Bucs are likely to keep a fourth running back if at least one of the last two can be a big contributor on special teams. Vaughn is off to a good start in that regard, which could help cement his spot, both on the roster and on the active list for game days, and that could eventually lead to more time on offense.
"Ke'Shawn had a hell of a game and he had a great practice in special teams, so that's his niche right now," said Arians. "Gio's got his role, Ke'Shawn's trying to find roles to get a hat on Sunday."
* If Arians does indeed choose to rest his starters on Saturday night, that will provide a lot of snaps for younger players battling at deep spots like wide receiver and safety. For the offensive line, it will provide a different sort of challenge.
The Buccaneers recently placed promising rookie guard Sadarius Hutcherson on injured reserve and waived first-year center Donell Stanley with an injury designation. Third-round lineman Robert Hainsey has missed roughly two weeks of work due to injury and while he returned on Wednesday he might not yet be cleared for game action by the weekend.
"It's going to be real iffy whether he plays," said Arians of Hainsey, who has worked primarily at center in training camp but can also work at guard and tackle. "I'm just happy to see him on the practice field."
Second-string tackle Josh Wells missed time will tending to a personal issue but is now back, as well. However, first-year guard John Molchon went into the training room midway through practice on Wednesday with an apparent leg issue.
The Bucs have 12 offensive linemen on the current 85-man roster, which would leave seven if the starting unit is held out. Two of those seven were just added in the last week: veteran guard Earl Watford and first-year tackle Jake Benzinger. The Bucs have been particularly thin at center with the Hainsey and Stanley injuries, which is why both Molchon and Nick Leverett have recently started taking some snaps at the pivot. Leverett, nominally a guard by trade, had already been showing off his own versatility by playing left tackle.
That's a lot of moving parts, though, and not much depth. Arians was asked if the Bucs would have enough linemen on Saturday night to be able to rest the starters but he said he'll know more after Thursday's practice
"See if we get through tomorrow," said the coach. "We lost one today and we'll see the numbers, but hopefully we'll at least have seven for the ballgame."
Ali Marpet, one of those five starters likely to get a night off Saturday, says the rash of injuries has put a strain on his group but also sees a silver lining to the situation.
Yeah, it's tough," said Marpet. "Guys are going to have to play different positions but hopefully that ends up helping us in the long run. You have a guy that you didn't think could play tackle but now he plays tackle. You had a guy you didn't think could snap the ball, now he can snap the ball. In the short run it kind of feels a little panicky but in the long run hopefully it's good for us."