The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Cleveland Browns on Friday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 7:30 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carl Nassib. The former Brown gets another opportunity to play against the team that drafted him in the third round in 2016. The first reunion came during the regular season last fall, and Nassib recorded two sacks and a pass defensed in a 26-23 overtime victory for the Buccaneers. Nassib, who was second on the team last year with 6.5 sacks, is a key part of the Bucs' efforts to create pressure off the edge in Todd Bowles' new defense. He is one of the seven players on the defense to have recorded a sack so far in this preseason.
Vernon Hargreaves III. Hargreaves has had a fantastic training camp as he has locked down one of the two starting cornerback spots, and he had an interception in the preseason opener that was erased by an unrelated penalty on a teammate. Presumably, the Browns will play their starting offense longer into the game than in previous weeks, as well, which means Hargreaves will have to contend with Baker Mayfield throwing passes to new Browns wide receiver Odell Beckham. That will be an excellent challenge for the red-hot Hargreaves.
Jameis Winston. Winston has been sharp in two games, with a passer rating of 120.4 and no turnovers, but he's only thrown 10 passes. He should get more time to work on Friday night, which means he'll have a chance to spread the ball around to some of the key targets who have yet to be heavily involved in the attack, including O.J. Howard, Cam Brate, Breshad Perriman and – if he plays despite a minor leg injury – Mike Evans.
Darian Stewart. The Buccaneers added the veteran safety on August 13 and he played in the second preseason game just three days later. That didn't give Stewart much time to learn the defense, and Head Coach Bruce Arians said the result was some missed gap assignments in the run defense. Arians stressed that Stewart, who has 91 career NFL starts, is a very smart player who should be able to absorb the defense quickly. He will likely play extensively with the second team on Friday.
Justin Watson. While the Bucs' top three at wide receiver are set in Evans, Perriman and Chris Godwin, Arians made it clear earlier in the week that the rest of the depth chart is still unsettled. Second-year man Justin Watson has caught six passes for 59 yards through two games but probably needs more in order to secure the fourth spot. Watson deserves attention both on offense when the reserves get their chance and on special teams throughout the night.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· Zero interceptions. Preseason statistics don't carry a lot of weight, and that caveat applies to everything in this section. That said, it's certainly encouraging that none of the Buccaneers three quarterbacks has thrown an interception through two games. Tampa Bay is one of only five teams in the NFL that has yet to suffer an interception this preseason.
· 100% field goal success rate. Rookie kicker Matt Gay has made his first three NFL attempts, hitting from 55, 32 and 48 yards. The last of those was a game-winner against the Dolphins with seconds left in regulation and the Bucs down by a point. Cairo Santos has made his only attempt, from 23 yards, and Arians said this week that the veteran kicker would get the call on the next long field goal try.
· Zero punt returns. Buccaneer opponents have punted 10 times but Tampa Bay has yet to see a return in that phase of the game. Bobo Wilson and Spencer Schnell have combined to fair catch all five of the kicks for which they lined up deep, while two others have been touchbacks and three have been downed. It will be difficult to settle on a punt returner for the regular season – a decision that could determine a spot or two on the 53-man roster – without some in-game runbacks as evidence.
· 22 penalties. After drawing their head coach's ire with 14 penalties in the Week One loss at Pittsburgh, Buccaneer players did reduce that number to eight in their second outing. However, several of those were roughing-the-passer flags caused by pass-rushers making contact to the quarterback's head with their hands in passing. The Bucs' young defenders must learn to avoid that mistake.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· RB Ronald Jones II missed practice time this week but returned on Tuesday and the coaching staff is hopeful that he can suit up against the Browns. While Peyton Barber remains the starter in the backfield, Jones has also seen action with the first-team offense and is averaging 4.2 yards per carry.
· LB Devante Bond has recently been moved from the inside linebacker group to join the outside linebackers in order to take advantage of his pass-rush skills. Bond had a sack in that new role last week against Miami. However, he missed time due to a minor injury this week.
· The Buccaneers starting offense has only played one drive in each of the first two games but should see some extended action on Friday night. However, if that group starts out well, Arians may choose to pull them out before halftime.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers preseason practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE BROWNS
It's all about the number-ones.
Browns second-year quarterback Baker Mayfield, the first-overall pick in the 2018 draft, has been as limited as most starters in the first half of the preseason, though he's been nearly flawless in that action, with a perfect passer rating of 158.3. Mayfield was a big-play machine in his rookie season and he's averaging a robust 12.3 yards per pass attempt this August, albeit on just six heaves. Oh, and he now has Odell Beckham to target. The Bucs have a young secondary that has been only mildly tested to this point. That should change on Friday night.
A year before the Browns took Mayfield to start the '18 draft, they used the first-overall pick in 2017 to land defensive end Myles Garrett, who is alternately nicknamed Superman and Big Foot. After being a somewhat limited by injuries in his rookie season, but still getting seven sacks in 11 games, Garrett broke out for 13.5 QB takedowns last year. Tampa Bay's starting offensive line has allowed just one sack on the two drives it has powered so far, but Garrett will be a severe test for Donovan Smith and Demar Dotson and any tight ends the Bucs put out there to help the tackles.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
"We’re always looking to flip those last five guys – the last five guys on our practice squad – and just keep churning that roster to find guys that fit better. You’ll always be looking for them. That’s why when we make those cuts to the final [53 players], don’t celebrate too much – it might only be two days."
The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.