Bruce Arians will walk the Tampa Bay Buccaneers gameday sideline for the first time on Friday night as the 2019 preseason opens with a road game in Pittsburgh. It's a familiar venue for Arians, who coached for the Steelers from 2004-11 and helped quarterback Ben Roethlisberger thrive in an explosive offense. Now he embarks on his effort to do the same with Jameis Winston and the Buccaneers.
In fact, Friday's summer opener pits the two most productive passing games in the NFL last year, in terms of yards. Tampa Bay ranked first in net passing yards per outing with 320.3, with Pittsburgh just behind at 313.0. In fact, the Bucs and Steelers are coming off two of the top eight passing-yardage campaigns in NFL history.
Of course, that would be a much more relevant note if Friday's game was the regular-season opener instead of an early-August tune-up. Winston and Roethlisberger aren't likely to play long, and that's sure to be true of most starters on both sides. If Tampa Bay's offense can open the game with an effective scoring drive, that might be all Arians needs to see from that crew…if they're even still in the game.
"If they play that long," said Arians with a smile. "I might call timeout and take them out."
Arians estimated that young players and the back half of the depth chart will probably account for about 80% of the playing time for the Bucs on Friday, and of course that's par for the course for the first preseason game. That said, Arians said the number-one goal won't change once the less-experienced players take over the game.
"A win – that's the only reason we play the game," said Arians. "Young players, veteran players – you play to win the game. And, [I want to see] organization. Not 10 guys out there on a punt, stuff like that. Just look like we know what we're doing, and I want to see these guys play hard."
Fans that want to see the team's newest players should enjoy Friday's game. And, while Arians knows the place well, the Buccaneers will enjoy a trip to a relatively unfamiliar location – this is just the team's second-ever preseason game in Pittsburgh. Five, four, three, two, one…the 2019 season is about to take off. Here are five specific issues to consider while waiting for the 7:30 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Steelers contest:
1. Who will gain exposure and who will get exposed?
As the Bucs' first game has approached, Arians has returned several times to a line that underscores how important the preseason can be to players farther down the depth chart.
"The guys that are going to play in this game need to pick it up," he said. [T]he twos and threes – they’re either going to get exposure or they’re going to get exposed in this ballgame, because they got exposed, some of them, in practice today."
As Arians noted later in the week, even though there are nearly 40 more players in camp than there is room for on the eventual roster, there are other potential opportunities for which players are auditioning. The Bucs will have a 10-man practice squad, for one, and other teams will be looking to fill specific holes on their own depth charts.
"That's what we talked to them about it," said Arians. "What they're putting on tape is not just for us – 31 other teams are going to look at it. So you want to put the best thing you have on tape to be evaluated."
So who are some young players to watch? At times, Arians was referring to young offensive linemen when he talked about being exposed. The Bucs' starting offensive line appears to be set, with only second-year man Alex Cappa new at right guard, and there are a couple of established veterans who could serve as key reserves, but there is a lot of competition among the younger linemen to fill out the final O-Line group. Keep an eye on such young tackles as Cole Boozer and Brock Ruble as well as rookie guard Zack Bailey.
The receivers will be an interesting unit to track on Friday, as well. Mike Evans and Chris Godwin have often looked dominant in camp, but they won't play far into the game. Second-year man Justin Watson, a Pittsburgh native, has been working hard to carve out a bigger role in the offense in training camp, and he should see plenty of playing time, as well. Sixth-round rookie Scotty Miller is sidelined by a hamstring strain but undrafted free agent Anthony Johnson could emerge from the crowd of young wideouts.
"All of them have been making really good plays," said Evans of his newer teammates. "I’m excited to see what they’re going to do in these preseason games. We’re a pretty tight-knit group. I like the rookies a lot. They’re just working, putting in work and making plays and doing what Coach [Arians] asks them."
The Bucs' long list of young defensive backs and second-year running back Ronald Jones will be worth watching, as well. More on them later in the countdown. One thing is certain: Special teams are important for all the young players.
"Our starters obviously will not play much but they don't have to prove anything to me right now," said Arians. "I'm pretty much set in stone on those guys. It's those young players covering kicks, playing smart, fast football."
2. Can Ronald Jones extend his strong training camp into live game action?
Peyton Barber, who started all 16 games at tailback for the Buccaneers last year, will get the call to begin Friday's game as well. Since there's a chance, as noted above, that the first-team offense will be putting on baseball caps on the sideline before long, there might not be many snaps to go around in the backfield. Ronald Jones, right behind Barber on the depth chart, may or may not get to run behind the starting line.
It may not matter.
"I'd like to have him out there with the ones, to have his best opportunities," said Arians. "But his confidence should be sky-high right now, as good of a camp as he's had."
Jones has probably been the Buccaneers' most improved player in this year's training camp. The Buccaneers drafted the USC back early in the second round in 2018 and envisioned him being a big-play complement to Barber. Instead, he never carved out a role on offense and finished his rookie campaign with just 77 yards from scrimmage. If his confidence was shaken by that NFL start, he's definitely overcome it because he has run with a purpose this summer. Most impressively, Jones broke off two long plays – one a run, one a swing pass – during one of the rare live-tackling drills of camp. He'll get many more opportunities to do that on Friday night.
"I think it’s important, to show the new staff I can handle it and all that, and just going out there and trying to make a name for myself," said Jones, who packed on some muscle in the offseason and has looked strong running up the gut. "With the added weight, I’m able to run in between the tackles more. [I] just feel heavier and stronger – faster too a little bit. … [I'm] just running with my eyes more instead of just running just to play. [I’m] just knowing the scheme of what I’m supposed to be hitting and then just making a cut off that."
Jones' unproductive rookie season came on the heels of a preseason that didn't go much better. He was commonly hit in the backfield before he had a chance to unleash any of his moves. Hopefully, he'll get a better opportunity this summer and give himself some momentum heading into his second season.
View pictures of the Buccaneers leaving for their matchup against the Steelers.
3. Will anyone put the first foot forward in the kick-and-return game?
Tampa Bay's training camp includes a full-on, head-to-head battle for the placekicking job, and neither competitor is backing down. Rookie Matt Gay has come in and displayed a powerful leg but veteran Cairo Santos has been matching him kick for kick. Gay and Santos haven't been perfect, but both have performed well enough to make the team confident in its final choice…on the practice field. The more important test comes over the next four weekends.
"It's all about games," said Arians. "It's not what you do in practice. Heinz Field is going to be one heck of a place to test them. [Gay] has obviously got the distance, but he missed [an] extra point because he got lazy with it."
Gay has successfully nailed field goals in the 55 to 65-yard range with regularity, and Santos also hit a 57-yarder during one camp practice. If the rookie can stay solid in games and win the job the Buccaneers' offense could have a new type of weapon in a kicker who can give you options between midfield and the opponent's 40-yard line.
"Normally, you’ve got to get to the 35, but with him it’s usually the 40 or 42," said Arians. "So, as long as he can consistently do that, he can be a weapon for us. That competition is pretty strong right now between him and Cairo."
The rest of the kicking trio seems set with the unchallenged pair of punter Bradley Pinion and long-snapper Zach Triner, but the same cannot be said of the return game. The primary punt returner of 2018, Adam Humphries, is gone and the Bucs never really settled on a kickoff returner last year. Wide receiver Bobo Wilson did provide a bit of a spark in that latter category at the end of the year, averaging 28.4 yards on 10 kickoff runbacks. Wilson is the first player listed at both return jobs on the Bucs' initial depth chart but he almost certainly doesn't have either job locked down yet.
"[He needs] consistency in catching the ball in games because he's been inconsistent in practice," said Arians. "But as a kick returner and a special teams player he's in a battle with some other guys."
Again, Miller likely would have gotten a shot if he hadn't been sidelined by injury a few days ago. Other players who might factor into the return game on Friday night are Jones, Dare Ogunbowale, Andre Ellington, Spencer Schnell and Vernon Hargreaves.
4. Will the young DBs show up?
Speaking of Hargreaves, he is somehow now essentially the elder statesman – at the age of 24 – in Tampa Bay's exceedingly young secondary. The Bucs have selected eight defensive backs in the top four rounds of the last four drafts, and all of them are still on the roster. Even as the team is still figuring out the best roles for the likes of 2018 draftees M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead, it is now trying to incorporate the 2019 trio of cornerbacks Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean and safety Mike Edwards.
Hargreaves and 2018 second-rounder Carlton Davis look like the starters at cornerback but the slot job is still up for grabs and any of the young players could push the first line. At safety, Edwards has been running with the first team along with Whitehead but there is still plenty of competition. Dean won't play on Friday due to injury and Edwards might be a game-day decision, but the young DBs are going to get their first "exposure" in the preseason opener.
Edwards missed several days of practice and only took part in individual drills on Wednesday but might get to make his debut against the Steelers. The third-round pick out of Kentucky has been a playmaker on the fields outside the AdventHealth Training Center but his coaches want to see him in live action.
"He’s a very smart young man and he’s just continuing to get better and better," said Arians. "Again, I’d like to see him against somebody else – not seeing the same plays over and over every day – seeing somebody else’s plays, and then we can better judge him."
The same is true for Murphy-Bunting, the 2019 second-rounder who could push Stewart for the nickel back job. Preseason openers can be a bit sloppy with two teams throwing up to 150 players on the field, but the Bucs would like to see their young defensive backs stand out with some splash plays.
5. How will the quarterback reps be split?
This one will be brief and to the point: Winston is not going to play long on Friday night and there will likely be somewhere between 60 and 80 offensive snaps for Tampa Bay's offense. Rookies Nick Fitzgerald (on PUP) and Vincent Testaverde (released earlier in the week) are not in the picture, so whatever comes after Winston's cameo will be split between Blaine Gabbert and Ryan Griffin.
How those reps are split could be the first evidence as to the shape of the battle to be Winston's primary backup in 2019. By virtue of his second-team snaps in practice for most of camp, Gabbert would seem to be the front-runner, and his NFL game experience and time in Arians' offense in Arizona are two good reasons why. Griffin, however, has a history of performing well in the preseason, even though he's still looking for his first regular-season snaps.
In addition to the battle for the number-two spot, there is also the matter of determining whether to keep two or three quarterbacks on the eventual 53-man roster. Griffin has essentially been Tampa Bay's third quarterback for four years and he's obviously shown plenty on the practice field and in the preseason to have such a long run. How will his performance on Friday night and the rest of the season impact the Bucs' decisions when it comes to forming the QB depth chart for the games that count?