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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Cleveland Pregame Report: Shuffling the Line

With a handful of guards out for Friday's game, the Buccaneers will rely on the versatile Evan Smith and the rising Josh Allen to cover the gaps as the team's starters see extensive playing time.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Cleveland Browns Friday night, and since it's the third week of the preseason, the Buccaneers will be balancing two equally important pursuits: giving their starters their longest warm-up before the regular season while continuing to evaluate the rest of the roster. When it comes to the offensive line, they'll be doing both at the same time.

Due to reasons mostly having to do with minor injuries, Tampa Bay will have to play Friday's game without four of their interior linemen, all of whom have a good shot to be on the 53-man roster when it's all said and done: J.R. Sweezy, Ali Marpet, Kevin Pamphile and Caleb Benenoch. When the week began, Marpet and Pamphile were the likely starting guard duo for the Bucs, with Sweezy on the active/PUP list and Benenoch just returning from an injury absence of several weeks. Marpet will be rested due to a sore ankle, however, and Pamphile will not be with the team on Friday.

"Kevin's going to be excused for family reasons, something he needs to take care of, so we're going to be a little thin at guard," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Evan Smith is going to bump out and play right guard in Ali's spot and Josh Allen will end up starting at left guard. Josh, these last couple days, has really come on in practice and had two really good days of practice against Cleveland."

Pictures of the Browns' offense and defense, according to the team's depth chart.

Smith is battling Joe Hawley for the starting center position, but his versatility will come in handy against the Browns as he fills in for Marpet while Hawley handles the pivot. Since the Buccaneers generally keep only one backup interior lineman active on regular-season game days, Offensive Line Coach George Warhop likes to develop as many multi-positional players as possible.

"George cross-trains those guys and you've got to have it because any time a guy gets nicked up, on game day you've only got seven, so guys have got to be able to slide around," said Koetter. "I'm really proud of Evan Smith, who's in a battle for the starting center job with Joe Hawley but he's going to have to bounce over and play guard tonight, and Josh Allen, a guy that's been on and off our roster multiple times and has really come on here at the end. He's going to make it a tough decision at the end."

That decision, of course, is the cumulative question of which players to keep through two upcoming rounds of cuts. Originally an undrafted free agent in 2014, Allen has played in just three regular season games but he just completed his third training camp with the team and he might be on the verge of making the leap to a more permanent spot on the roster, particularly if any of the team's assorted injuries leak into the regular season, which is just 16 days away.

That will probably not be the case, however, for Marpet, the Buccaneers' very promising second-year blocker who was wearing a protective boot while watching practice on Wednesday.

"What fans have to realize that when it's reported that a guy is in a boot, a lot of times guys are in a boot just to protect them, just so they're not walking around on that ankle," Koetter explained. "Ali was wearing a boot, that's a fact, but we don't need to read too much into it. Ali's going to be fine long-term. We're going to be missing Ali and we're also going to be missing Kevin Pamphile tonight."

Linebacker Daryl Smith did not participate in practice for the second straight week and will sit out Friday's game, but most of the rest of the Bucs' projected starters will get a significant bump in playing time this week. For most, it will be their final tune-up for the regular season, since the fourth preseason game is usually devoted almost entirely to those players still fighting for roster spots.

"We're going to try to play our starters not only through the first half but come out and play them a series in the third quarter," said Koetter. "Obviously, that could change based on what happens depth-wise, but that's the plan, to try to play our guys into the second half."

Other Buccaneers who will not suit up on Friday night include WR Louis Murphy, RB Mike James, WR Evan Spencer, TE Luke Stocker and DT Clinton McDonald. Austin Seferian-Jenkins will start in Stocker's place and Akeem Spence will step in for McDonald.

Meanwhile, rookie cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, the 11th overall pick in the draft, saw a bump in his playing time with the first-team defense this past week. Whether or not he actually starts on Friday night, he is sure to see plenty of playing time after picking off two passes in last Saturday's game in Jacksonville. The Bucs' second-round pick, defensive end Noah Spence, will play extensively on Friday, too.

]("We're really pleased with both those guys," said Koetter. "Vernon had two interceptions the first day we practice against Cleveland, on top of the two he had [in the Jacksonville game]. His ball skills are one of the reasons we drafted him where we did. Noah, it was great for him to go against a Pro Bowl left tackle in Joe Thomas this week in practice. We're real happy with both those guys."

The Browns are likely to play their starters for a good portion of the game, as well, which means the Buccaneers' defense will get an opportunity to contend with Cleveland's new starting quarterback, Robert Griffin III. The Browns also have a deep and intriguing group of wideouts, including rookie first-rounder Corey Coleman and veteran Josh Gordon, who just recently returned to action.

"The main thing is, [Cleveland Head Coach] Hue Jackson does a really nice job in how he uses Robert Griffin," said Koetter. "They've got some zone-read stuff that they didn't necessarily run against us in in practice and they also run some unusual formations. You'll see them split their linemen out and run some crazy stuff that is tough for our defense to adjust to. That will be a good challenge. Also, they have good speed at wide receiver. They have three receivers that can really go."

The Buccaneers take on the Jaguars in Week Three of the 2016 preseason on Friday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at the new Raymond James Stadium in Tampa, which will debut its massive new videoboards in both end zones and on all four corner towers. The game will be broadcast nationally by CBS and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.

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