The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play at home for the first time in 2018 when they take on the Detroit Lions at Raymond James Stadium in Week Three of the preseason. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the game to begin on Friday night:
1. What will the offensive line look like, giving a recent rash of injuries?
The Buccaneers went into the final week of their training camp (but not the end of its preseason preparations) with some depth issues along the offensive line but it's presumed starting five still intact. On Friday night, however, they may only have two of those five in action.
Starting left tackle Donovan Smith, who has missed zero starts and just 30 offensive snaps through his first three NFL seasons, went down with a knee injury early in practice on Tuesday and was helped into the training room. Starting left guard Ali Marpet didn't leave the field early that same day but he did stop participating in drills near the end. If Marpet has an injury, it is as yet unspecified by the team, but he was not practicing on Wednesday. The same was true for starting right guard Caleb Benenoch.
The Buccaneers responded to these new absences by fielding a first-team line of left tackle Michael Liedtke, left guard Adam Gettis, center Ryan Jensen, right guard Alex Capp and right tackle Demar Dotson in practice on Wednesday. That could be how they line up for the first snap on Friday night against the Lions. Alternately, the Buccaneers could choose to play trusted veteran Evan Smith at either of the guard spots. It's instructional that in the preseason opener at Miami, with Benenoch unavailable, Smith was given the start at right guard even though it was the rookie Cappa who had taken over at that spot in practice.
The Buccaneers are likely to be slim on depth on Friday night, too. Young tackles Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer all were sidelined for most of training camp, and while Boozer did return to the mix on Wednesday, it was in a limited fashion. It seems likely that none of those three will be available against the Lions.
This is a more significant issue in Week Three of the preseason than it was when the O-line was also thin for the opener in Miami. In that game, the starters were only going to play for about one quarter anyway. The third week of the preseason is generally when teams let their front-line players go the longest, often into the third quarter. That means whatever line the Bucs can put on the field to start Friday's game will be trying to protect a starting quarterback, with the games that count just a couple weeks away. Which brings us to…
View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place.
2. How will the quarterback rotation be handled?
This is an easy question to answer almost every summer. First, identify the starting quarterback, something that is generally easy to do by the midpoint of the preseason, if not much earlier. Expect that guy to play at least the first half and, depending upon some variables, possibly a bit into the third quarter. Coaches sometimes like to see how their starting unit handles whatever adjustments were made during halftime. They might also be looking for a certain number of plays for their starters, and that could determine whether more work in the third quarter is needed or not.
The formula isn't so simple this summer. The Buccaneers came into training camp with the unusual task of essentially getting two quarterbacks ready to start. Jameis Winston is the team's starter, as he has been for the past three years, but he will be suspended for the first three games of the regular season. He will not be able to practice or be in contact with the team during those three weeks, so the preseason is his chance to get ready for what he'll be asked to do upon his return.
In the meantime, 14th-year veteran Ryan Fitzpatrick will start those first three games. His wealth of NFL experience and his year in the Bucs' system brings down the level of difficulty a bit in regard to getting him prepared to start, but he obviously still needs some time to tune up. Since the start of camp, the Buccaneers have been juggling those two goals, giving Fitzpatrick the majority of the first-team snaps but also getting Winston work with the first, second and third-team groups.
So, will the Buccaneers follow the usual Week Three pattern and play Fitzpatrick into the third quarter, which in turn would reduce the opportunities to get Winston and Ryan Griffin into the game? Or will they give both Fitzpatrick and Winston time with the rest of the first-team offense?
"Everything we're doing is affected by that," said Koetter, without divulging his specific plan for Friday night. "Every day at practice is affected by that and all four preseason games are affected by that. We still have to get all three guys ready. There's still no change there."
3. Who will help Gerald McCoy on the interior front?
The Buccaneers have a six-time Pro Bowler at one of their defensive tackle spots and they put a lot of effort in the offseason into getting him an impactful running mate. Even after using free agency to bring in both Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein, the Bucs still used their first-round pick, 11th overall, to draft big and nimble defensive tackle Vita Vea. On paper, those four make for a pretty imposing interior rotation.
Unfortunately, none of those three newcomers is likely to be available Friday night, as none were practicing on Tuesday and Wednesday. Vea has been out with a calf injury since the third day of training camp and Unrein has bene sidelined for nearly as long. Allen recently joined the list with an unspecified injury this week. None are considered long-term concerns, but their combined absence on Friday night certainly limits the Bucs' options.
If the second half of last week's game plus some recent practice field observations are any indication, the Buccaneers feel comfortable using run-stopping defensive end Will Gholston on the inside as much as needed. He could be a big part of the solution on Friday night. In passing downs, the team is also quick to slide either one of their starting ends, Vinny Curry and Jason Pierre-Paul, into the middle.
Otherwise, the depth at defensive tackle consists of holdover DaVonte Lambert and a pair of undrafted rookies just added recently in Nathan Bazata and Adam Reth. Even with the intended plan of playing starters well into Friday's game, the Buccaneers may have to piece together a rotation to handle the defensive tackle spot next to McCoy.
4. Can the running game gain some traction?
Halfway into the preseason, the Buccaneers lead the NFL in net passing yards per game (345.5) and have a collective passer rating of 107.1. Many different pass-catchers have made big plays in the aerial attack, from Mike Evans to DeSean Jackson to Justin Watson to Sergio Bailey.
The rushing attack, on the other hand, has yet to produce much. Starter Peyton Barber has done well with limited carries, averaging 5.3 yards per tote and consistently picking up yards after first contact. But, of course, his playing time has been limited and the rest of the team has 84 yards on 42 carries (2.0 avg.), and that includes a combined 30 yards from quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick and wide receiver Bobo Wilson.
As is usually the case, this is a collective issue and not solely an indictment of the team's young running backs. The Bucs have had to patch together and offensive line, as noted above, and while that group has provided outstanding pass protection it hasn't been able to rev up the rushing attack yet. It's also nearly certain that the team has only skimmed the surface of its playbook for the ground game in an effort not to put too much on tape for upcoming regular-season opponents.
The Buccaneers want to present a balanced attack and are confident they can produce a fine rushing attack with the continued development of Barber, the addition of second-round pick Ronald Jones and some changes up front. It would be nice to get a glimpse of that before the preseason wraps up, and Friday's game will be the last exposure for the starters before the regular season.
5. Will the starting defense produce more big plays in its longest tune-up of the preseason?
The Bucs are 2-0, and while a high-scoring offense has been the biggest factor in that good preseason start, the defense has done its part, too. Buccaneer opponents are scoring 19.0 points per game and, most notably, just 17 points in two first halves, combined. Tampa Bay's starting defense played roughly a quarter in the first game and most of the first half in the second and, while it has given up some yards, it has mostly held on third downs and in the red zone. Buccaneer opponents are converting just 29.6% of their third-down tries (eight of 27).
That improved third-down stinginess was one of the Bucs' main goals in 2018 after allowing a conversion rate of 48.1% in 2017, good for last in the league. But the team also wants to improve on its 2017 sack total of 22 and create more turnovers overall. Through two games, the 2018 Bucs have recorded just three sacks and three takeaways. Cornerback M.J. Stewart provided a spark with two forced fumbles against the Titans (one of which the Bucs recovered), but the team still has just one interception. That one, by Ryan Smith, came on what was essentially a desperation pass by the Dolphins at the very end of the Bucs' two-point win in Week One.
The Buccaneers know that pass-rush and pass-coverage go hand in hand, and they poured a lot of resources into improving both ends of that process this offseason. Now they want to see quarterbacks hurried into riskier throws and defensive backs making more plays on the ball.