The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Dallas Cowboys on Thursday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:00 p.m. kickoff at AT&T Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Vincent Testaverde. Thursday's game may not count in the standings but it will surely mean a lot to the Testaverde family. Vincent, the son of Vinny and Mitzi Testaverde – the former one of the more iconic figures in franchise history – will likely handle most of the quarterbacking duties against Dallas even if Ryan Griffin makes a short cameo. Vincent's parents will be in attendance to watch their son make his NFL debut for the same team that his father did 32 years ago. There isn't much evidence to suggest how the younger Testaverde will fare, as he played just one season at Albany and has only had a handful of practices with the Buccaneers, but it's still one of the top stories to follow on Thursday night.
Scotty Miller. The sixth-round pick out of Bowling Green made his own debut last Friday after missing the first two preseason games due to injury. Miller caught two passes for 15 yards and was on the field as the return man for a trio of punts, but he should see more playing time in Dallas. Possibly the fastest of the Bucs' receivers, Miller is part of a crowded battle for the last one or two receiver spots on the 53-man roster and could benefit from some splash plays.
Justin Evans. A year ago, Evans was one of the dozens of Buccaneers who sat out the preseason finale, as is customary for entrenched starters. That he's expecting – and hoping – to play on Thursday is an indication of the difficulties he has run into since that 2018 game. Evans suffered a foot injury that cost him most of the second half of last season and then was unable to get back on the field during the 2019 offseason or any of training camp. However, he returned to practice this week and is expected to get some work so he can get his eyes trained in the Buccaneers' new defense. Evans seemed like he would be a prime participant in the battle for the starting safety spots but now he has to start playing catch-up to get back to that spot.
Matt Gay. The rookie kicker has performed well in his efforts to best veteran Cairo Santos in the battle for the Bucs' job, with a 55-yarder in Pittsburgh and a 48-yard game-winner against Miami in Week Two. He suffered his first miss in Week Three, bouncing a 37-yarder off the right upright against Cleveland, but he did come back to make another game-winner in that contest, albeit a 21-yard chip shot. Santos has made all three of his placekicks (one PAT, two FGs) and has done nothing to lose the competition, but the fifth-rounder out of Utah might be able to secure the job with one more confidence-building performance in the preseason finale.
Jack Cichy. The second-year linebacker has returned from an ACL tear suffered six games into his rookie campaign and he's been productive in the last two contests. With regulars sure to sit on Thursday, this game should be a prime opportunity for him to rack up some reps and continue building momentum in his comeback. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Monday that Cichy has "turned into one of [his] favorites" thanks to the toughness and passion he has shown on the field. Tampa Bay is looking to sort out its insider linebacker depth prior to the August 31 cut-down, so this is a golden opportunity for Cichy to solidify his head coach's feelings.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 22.0%/23.8% third-down efficiency. Those are the third-down conversion rates allowed so far by the Cowboys and Buccaneers' defenses, respectively. Neither team was particularly good in this category in the 2018 regular season (the Bucs ranked 22nd, the Cowboys 26th) so if these numbers are any indication of true improvement that is good news for both squads. Both teams have had good defensive results this summer in large part because they've been able to get off the field. Will either defense crack in Week Four?
· +5 turnover ratio. That number belongs to Dallas and it's tied for the best mark in the league. The Buccaneers are above the surface in this category, but just barely at +1. The Cowboys' offense has actually turned it one more time than has the Bucs' offense, but the defense has come up with eight takeaways. That includes five interceptions. Testaverde and the Bucs' young offensive players will have to be careful with the football.
· 11.11% sacks per pass attempt allowed. That applies to Tampa Bay's offense after the Browns racked up seven sacks last Friday, five of which came against the Bucs' starting unit. Those starters won't get another tune-up before the regular season and thus must fix any issues on the practice field, but the team is still looking for the best mix of O-Line reserves and would like to see some competent protection on Thursday night.
· 49.5% completion rate. Tampa Bay's pass defense has been good for much of the preseason, both with starters and reserves on the field. After allowing Baker Mayfield to complete just 10 of 26 passes last Friday the Bucs have pushed their opposing passers' completion percentage down below 50%. Again, preseason results are often unreliable, but Tampa Bay's defense was league-worst in this category last year, so any significant improvement could make a big difference.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers preseason practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· With Justin Evans returning to action and set to play on Thursday night, the Bucs may have more depth at safety than any other position while the starters are rested. In addition to Evans, Isaiah Johnson, Kentrell Brice, Darian Stewart, Lukas Denis and John Battle could all see action.
· WR Bobo Wilson will likely suit up for the game, which means the team will have its top option in the return game available. Still, rookie WRs Scotty Miller and Spencer Schnell are among the others with a chance to get return reps.
· Young receivers should get their biggest chunk of playing time in the preseason and some of them have yet to show up big in the stat column. Schnell had a 119-yard fourth quarter in the opener at Pittsburgh but chances have been fewer for Cortrelle Simpson (one catch for seven yards), DaMarkus Lodge (no receptions), Matthew Eaton (no receptions) and Emanuel Hall (no receptions).
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE COWBOYS
The final round in the battle for a couple down-roster spots in Dallas could produce high-energy efforts that will make it tougher on their Buccaneer counterparts. For instance:
The Cowboys have a foursome of established receivers in Amari Cooper, Michael Gallup, Randall Cobb and Tavon Austin. Two former draft picks are looking to return from some injury issues to get their NFL careers on solid footing: Cedrick Wilson (sixth-round pick by Dallas in 2018) and Devin Smith (second-round pick by the Jets in 2016). Wilson spent his rookie season on injured reserve while Smith battled a pair of ACL injuries in New York and was not in the league in 2018. Smith has 12 catches for 157 yards and a touchdown already and Wilson has six receptions for 73 yards. Only the Cowboys' decision-makers know if the team will be keeping five or six wideouts, and if Smith and Wilson are the clear front-runners for those spots, but both should be motivated to end their strong preseasons on a good note.
The Buccaneers have their starting offensive line in place but the reserve crew of four or five players remains a bit of a mystery. The young competitors for those jobs will see a lot of action in Dallas, and they'll face a pass-rush that has produced nine sacks through three games. Only two of those nine sacks have been provided by players listed as starters by the Cowboys, both belonging to Taco Charlton. Among the others who have pressured opposing quarterbacks this summer are rookie end Jalen Jelks (a seventh-round draft pick), Kerry Hyder (a street free agent with 24 career games played), and Christian Covington (an unrestricted free agent signing from the Texans).
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if there are about 10 spots on the 53-man roster still to be decided:
"Yeah, that's probably the number when you're talking about the sixth lineman, fifth backer, fifth corner, fourth corner. When you're going around and [seeing] who's on [special] teams, there's about 10 and then there's 10 practice squad spots for the guys that clear waivers."
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.