The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will let their starters – at least the ones not nursing minor injuries – play into the second half on Saturday night against the Cleveland Browns. That means the emphasis for this preseason game won't primarily be on figuring out how to cut the roster from 90 to 53 players in about a week.
Instead, the focus on Saturday night will be execution. Though the aforementioned minor ailments won't allow the Buccaneers to field their exact starting 22 in the third week of the preseason, the lineup will still be very similar to what the team fields on September 10 in Miami. Therefore, a strong showing – and most importantly an efficient outing short on errors – would be an indication that the Bucs are close to being ready for that regular-season opener.
"You want to see crisp execution – that's what you want to see," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We have to temper that with it's still a preseason game, you're building your stamina for your guys, but at the same time you're going to hold some guys out that maybe aren't 100 percent that maybe would play if it was a real game. For the guys that are in the game, you want to see crisp execution on both sides."
The Buccaneers' starting units have played roughly three quarters through the first two weeks of the preseason, and it has gone reasonably well. The first-team offense has moved the ball consistently at Jameis Winston's direction but has had trouble finishing drives in the end zone. The first-team defense has not allowed a point and was close to dominant last week in Jacksonville but has forced only one turnover.
The Buccaneers' depth chart for their preseason match-up against the Browns.
There are plenty of reasons that preseason statistics can be misleading, including the obvious fact that play-callers don't want to put their best stuff on tape for their opponents to see. In addition, preseason games coincide with the ongoing process of getting the entire playbook installed, so there's a lot of information in the players' heads. In the regular season, each week will feature a slimmed-down game plan pulling from the overall bank of plays and tailored for the upcoming opponent.
"What you want to do is you want to get everything installed that you're planning to use in the season," said Koetter of the training camp and preseason process. "You've got way more plays on offense, way more schemes on defense than you could ever use in one game. You want to teach it to the players, get it on tape, review it and then you're going to be pulling in and out of that as the season unwinds. I feel good about the amount of scheme that we have in and now these last couple weeks heading into Miami, you're going to polish up and gear everything towards Miami."
Winston has been sharp and has shown (with one Hard Knocks-emphasized exception in Jacksonville) improved decision-making. He has spread the ball around well to his deep group of targets, including Mike Evans (9-115), Adam Humphries (6-45), Cam Brate (4-44), Chris Godwin (3-44), DeSean Jackson (3-23) and O.J. Howard (2-28). On Saturday night, however, he will be without his top two targets as Evans and Jackson will sit out as a precautionary measure.
The Bucs have also chosen not to expose the following players to any additional risk on Saturday night: QB Ryan Griffin, WR Josh Huff, CB Brent Grimes, CB Josh Robinson, DE Jacquies Smith, LB Kwon Alexander, LB Devante Bond, OL Kevin Pamphile, T Demar Dotson, DE Justin Trattou, OL Caleb Benenoch, DE William Gholston and DT Gerald McCoy. In each case, Koetter said during the previous week that the injury involved is nothing long-term or overly concerning. The team might make different decisions on some of those players if a regular-season win or loss was on the line.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' enhanced locker room.
"It's just common sense," said Koetter. "If it's a medical issue at all, we're holding him out. We would always do that, especially in the preseason. We do it in the regular season as well. It's a little bit different on when guys can go and when they can't."
The most interesting lineup decision for Cleveland is giving the starting nod to rookie quarterback DeShone Kizer. The Browns are obviously seeking to determine who their opening-day starter will be, choosing between the second-round pick and veterans Brock Osweiler, Cody Kessler and Kevin Hogan. Osweiler, acquired in an unusual trade with Houston this spring, started the first two games.
But there's also value for the Buccaneers in the Browns decision to go with Kizer on Saturday night. The former Notre Dame star is a more mobile passer than Osweiler and he might provide the Bucs with some specific challenges that will come in handy later in the year.
"You can get a lot of looks out of the Browns," said Bucs DT Clinton McDonald. "They have a lot of good quarterbacks, one who's a rookie this year who does a lot of zone reads. Going into the season, we can kind of practice against the zone read knowing we're going to play Cam Newton sometime in the season. We can practice different principles we want to implement there."
Of course, even with the starters getting their longest exposure of the preseason, both teams will eventually go to their reserves. With such a large roster and so much playing time for the starters, it's unlikely every healthy Buccaneer will get into Saturday's game. However, there are still some down-the-depth-chart decisions to be made – such as fifth receiver or fifth linebacker – so there is value in Saturday's fourth quarter, as well. The Bucs must make that cut to 53 on September 2, after the preseason finale. It won't be easy.
"We probably developed the best depth we've had in the three seasons I've been here," said Koetter. "It's going to be tough at the end. It's going to be tough because we've got decent depth at several positions."
The Buccaneers take on the Browns in Week Three of the 2017 preseason on Saturday night, with kickoff scheduled for 7:30 p.m. ET. The game, the first of the season at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, will be broadcast locally by WFLA, New Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, iHeart Media's 98ROCK (97.9 FM).