Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Dolphins

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On Friday night, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Miami Dolphins will do what they do almost every August: Get together for a little preseason skirmish. The 2019 season is the 44th one in Buccaneers franchise history, and it will be the 31st of those that had at least one Bucs-Dolphins preseason game as a prologue. (That "at least" is because the two teams actually played a pair of warmup games before the 1996 season.)

This particularly rematch, however, came with a couple appetizers. Miami swung into town earlier in the week and visited the AdventHealth Training Center for two long and useful joint practices on Tuesday and Wednesday. That combined work was valuable as an addendum to the actual game because it gave the coaches a chance to script a bunch of specific situations that might not just happen in the game organically.

Going against the Dolphins for five total hours also gave the Buccaneers a better feel for how their team-building is going.

"It’s really good to go against somebody else because sometimes going against yourself, you get a false sense of security or you don’t really get a true evaluation until you see it against someone else," said Defensive Line Coach Kacy Rodgers. "Then, you can really assess what you have or what you don’t have and go from there, or see where the improvements need to be made, but the work against somebody else is truly invaluable."

But here's what the game has that practice didn't, for the most part: Real, live tackling. The Bucs and Dolphins only went live for two short drills at the end of each practice, for the obvious purpose of reducing the possibility of injury. Things won't be as polite on Friday night.

Preseason games might not have the same stakes for the two battling teams as regular-season affairs, but they remain quite important to the dozens of mostly green players who are fighting to get one of the coveted spots on the 53-man roster. The Buccaneers are not likely to play their starters very long against the Dolphins, which will only give more time to those young hopefuls. Here are five specific issues to consider while waiting for that audition to begin at 7:30 p.m. at Raymond James Stadium:

1. Can the starting offense earn itself another early shower with a successful start to the game?

Prior to the preseason opener last Friday, Head coach Bruce Arians said he would probably pull the starting offense out after one drive if it went well. And if that first drive didn't go well…Arians would probably pull them out anyway.

In other words, Jameis Winston probably only had one shot to make it work against Pittsburgh, and he did exactly that. The Buccaneers marched right down the field on 12 plays, facing only one short third down, and Winston completed five of his six passes, the last one an eight-yard touchdown strike to Chris Godwin. His only miss was on a deep shot to Breshad Perriman, and he also escaped the only bit of backfield pressure he saw and ran for 10 yards.

Winston got running backs Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones involved in the passing attack and those two combined for 40 of the drive's 81 yards. The offensive line provided good protection and opened comfortable lanes for the backs.

It's customary for starters to pack it in quickly in the preseason opener. They usually see their playing time increase gradually in the second and third games before most of them sit out the preseason finale completely. However, the work accomplished during the joint practices might prompt Arians to follow a plan similar to last week, which means Winston and company could be in baseball caps again after one drive if they can produce the same results. That's what Arians wants to see in his offense's second out.

"Consistency," he said. "The same thing. We'll see something different in Miami. [We got] to practice against them all week. [I] don’t know how much they’ll play because of all that practice time against them. We’ll just see how that goes."

By moving the chains five times in that Pittsburgh drive, the offense gave Arians a chance to get Jones involved after Barber handled the backfield duties for the first half of the march. Meanwhile, there wasn't a single target for Mike Evans, O.J. Howard or Cam Brate during those 12 plays. That's obviously a very small sample size; the ball may find those players against Miami.

"If you’ve got a guy that’s got a hot hand, you just keep feeding him," said Arians, discussing the backfield distribution. Everybody check their ego at the door because it’s all about rushing the football, pass protection [and] doing all of those things – same thing with the receivers. We had a great drive – O.J., Brate and Mike Evans don’t touch the ball. That’s okay."

2. Will the young secondary show up more conspicuously in Round Two?

Tampa Bay's starting defense didn't play long last Friday night either, and when they did it was primarily against Pittsburgh's second-string offense. That meant a lot of time for such young defensive backs as Sean Murphy-Bunting and Mazzi Wilkins. Rookie safety Mike Edwards ran with the starting defense but finished the night with a hamstring strain. Rookie cornerback Jamel Dean was held out due to his own hamstring issue.

At various times during training camp, that draft-class trio of Murphy-Bunting, Dean and Edwards have been very visible, breaking up passes and making a string of splash plays. They started off particularly well in the first couple weeks, giving the Buccaneers hope that their secondary would be deeper and more impactful this year, with those three added to the likes of Vernon Hargreaves, Carlton Davis and M.J. Stewart.

There weren't many fireworks in the first game, however. Hargreaves made a great play but his sideline interception was erased by a penalty back at the line of scrimmage. Otherwise, Stewart had the Bucs' lone pass defensed of the night. Wilkins did force a fumble to help in the Bucs' fourth-quarter comeback attempt but Murphy-Bunting finished with a quiet two tackles.

None of which is surprising or discouraging. In fact, Murphy-Bunting in particular put himself in position to make some plays but didn't quite finish them.

"That’s called, 'Welcome to the NFL,'" said Cornerbacks Coach Kevin Ross. "You’re close, but you didn’t make it. He’s going to be okay. I’m not worried about him a little bit – he’s going to be okay. He just has to have the experience of playing in a big game like that right there, with all the situations. Like I said, he’s learning the situations as well. He’s getting baptized as we speak. All of them are in the same boat."

Edwards won't play in the game against Miami but Dean will likely make his NFL debut. Perhaps the second preseason game will feature more standout moments for the Bucs' young DBs.

"They understand the nature of the position now," said Ross. "This is the most scrutinized position in the NFL. When they give up big plays, it’s easy to see them. They’re not A-gap, B-gap players like linebackers and linemen. They’re field players – they take guys all over the field and they understand now what it’s going to take … to play the game."

3. Can the Bucs make Bruce Arians a happier man by cutting down on their penalties?

There was a lot to like in the Bucs' opener in Pittsburgh, which they dropped, 30-28, after failing on a two-point try near the end of regulation. In addition to the excellent first drive on offense, the defense worked in a few successful blitzes, rookie Matt Gay hit a 55-yard field goal, third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin made the most out of a rotating cast of young supporting players and both Tanner Hudson and Spencer Schnell showed up big-time in the fourth quarter.

There was one thing in particular that Arians didn't like, or 16 things that added up to one big issue. Arians emphasized several times in the days following the game that he was displeased with the amount of flags the Bucs drew. This is what Arians said he would like to see in the Bucs' second game:

"Better execution out of our young players. Elimination of penalties – we had 16 penalties, 14 accepted last week, and we've had some more in these practices. I keep telling them, 'You get penalties, you're not making the team.' I want to see that eliminated, the mental errors, I just want to see them play sharper."

While Schnell was raising his profile with seven catches for 119 yards, all of it in the fourth quarter, the young skill-position group mostly failed to distinguish itself.

"Our young receivers had a really bad night," said Arians. "We had 37 mental errors on offense, they had probably 21 of them, so they better pick their stuff up for this next game."

View some of the top photos from Buccaneers joint Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center with the Miami Dolphins.

4. Who will be the next unexpected breakout player?

Schnell only needed one quarter to go from obscure undrafted rookie to a player everyone was talking about at training camp this week. Hudson had been doing good things in practice leading up to the opener but that was probably only obvious to the coaches. Now he has a strong game on his resume, too. Wilkins was a late add to the roster right before camp began, so his big play definitely helped raise his profile.

Schnell actually used the game to get back on track a little bit, and Arians later pointed out that some players simply show up more when the lights go on.

"He came here as a tryout guy," said Wide Receivers Coach Kevin Garver of the Schnell. "Really the reason why he made the team is he was just snagging the ball – he was catching the ball so well. I think it was a little bit frustrating for Snelly. His reps go down and you maybe haven’t seen him do as many things as he has been able to do, so I was really proud of what he has done. I haven’t seen it as much in practice, but at the end of the day it matters what you do in the game. You prove to everyone that you can get it done."

It's uncertain how much that one game did for the roster fortunes of Schnell, Hudson or Wilkins. What is certain is that time is starting to run short for any young players who want to make a big impression. Friday night should be another excellent opportunity for someone. Who? Maybe another young receiver like Anthony Johnson or a rookie pass-rusher like Kahzin Daniels. Rookie running back Bruce Anderson didn't get a carry in the opener (he was targeted on one pass); perhaps he gets his shot against the Dolphins. Second-year linebacker Jack Cichy, who lost much of his rookie season to a knee injury, is back on the practice field but didn't get to suit up in Pittsburgh. Perhaps he'll get a chance to show a new coaching staff what he can do in a game.

"It would be easy to cut down to 60 right now, for me," said Arians. "But, again, we've got the preseason games coming up and maybe guys can show up more when the lights come on than they have in practice. They've put in the time."

5. Will any special teams questions get closer to their resolutions on Friday night?

One of the notes in last week's Countdown was about the kicking game, and the evening in Pittsburgh did provide a couple opportunities to focus on that part of the Bucs' roster, but not as many as the team might have liked. There was only one field goal attempt and, thanks to a run of two-point attempts in the second half, only one extra point try. Both of Pittsburgh's punts were fair caught and the kickoff return game didn't show much of a spark, with three guys combining to average 19.5 yards per runback.

Gay did fire an important shot in his kicker battle with veteran Cairo Santos by nailing that 55-yard field goal in a difficult environment at the end of the first half. Santos got the game's first kick and was true on an extra point. Gay also alternated kickoffs with punter Bradley Pinion, who is the front-runner for that job.

Obviously, the Bucs would prefer to score touchdowns over field goals, but in order to advance the kicking competition it would be quite helpful to have more kicks in the next three games. Ideally, Santos would get his own shot at a longer kick while Gay would get a chance to show he can be consistent on multiple tries. Given the daily rain that has been falling on Tampa throughout August, they might even get some chances in wet and unfavorable conditions.

Meanwhile, the Buccaneers don't seem like they are much closer to deciding who will return punts. Schnell and Bobo Wilson got the first two tries but, as noted, called for fair catches. Both of them would like an opportunity to pull ahead in that race, particularly while rookie wideout Scotty Miller, a prime return candidate, is out with an injury. Wilson also got a shot on kickoff returns, as did Jones and fellow running back Andre Ellington. Jones got only one of those; if the Bucs are seriously considering using him in that role, they'd surely like to see more of him in the preseason.

*The countdown to season kickoff is on! And the Bucs are kicking off the NFL’s 100 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

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