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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Titans

The Buccaneers are expecting big things from a reloaded D-line in 2018 and it would be encouraging to get a sneak preview on Saturday…That and other issues to ponder while waiting for kickoff

The 2018 Tampa Bay Buccaneers resume preseason game action on Saturday night when they follow a week of joint practices in Nashville with the real thing against the Tennessee Titans at Nissan Stadium. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the game to begin:

1. Will the new-look defensive line make a greater impact in Game Two?

There was a string of reps during an 11-on-11 move-the-ball drill in the Buccaneers-Titans practice on Thursday in which Tampa Bay's defensive line seemed to affect every play. Defensive end Will Clarke had a pass deflection, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul had a phantom strip-sack (he can't actually hit the quarterback's arm in practice) and quarterback Marcus Mariota was flushed quickly out of the pocket on two other occasions.

This is what the Buccaneers want to see on a regular basis after investing heavily to upgrade their defensive line over the offseason. Clarke is a holdover but Pierre-Paul was one of the high-profile additions to the line, along with Beau Allen, Vinny Curry, Mitch Unrein and first-round draft pick Vita Vea. With six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy still around and talented young edge-rusher Noah Spence back at full strength, the Buccaneers envision a deep line rotation that will keep legs fresh and produce much more – and more consistent – pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Tampa Bay finished last in the NFL in 2017 with 22 sacks.

Vea and Unrein will not play in Saturday's game due to injuries but the Buccaneers can still start a base foursome of Pierre-Paul, Curry, McCoy and Allen, and also a base nickel of McCoy, Pierre-Paul, Curry and Spence, with either Pierre-Paul or Curry kicking inside next to McCoy. Clarke and Will Gholston would likely figure in the mix as well.

The debut of this reconstructed group in Miami last Thursday was a mixed bag. McCoy had the first sack of the season, unsurprisingly, and a quick rush around end by Spence led to another sack he split with Patrick O'Connor. That was it, though, and the Dolphins rushing attack managed 116 yards on the night. After the game, McCoy made it clear that the results were not good enough from his unit, and specifically pointed at the trouble stopping the run. In his well-informed opinion, the Buccaneers have to contain the ground game better in order to really unleash the pass rush.

Also limiting the impact of that group was that the starters only played about 15 snaps before retiring to the sideline and letting the younger players dominate playing time the rest of the way. In a regular-season game, the front-line players would be available for all four quarters and a true rotation would emerge.

That issue will still be a factor on Saturday night, as will the continued absences of Vea and Unrein. The starters are likely to play a little longer but still be done by halftime. Still, even with those limits, it would be encouraging to see the Bucs' defensive front make the type of play-after-play impact they did during that encouraging stretch in practice on Thursday.

2. Who will be making their preseason and/or Buccaneers debuts?

The Buccaneers' camp roster holds 91 players (including exempted international practice squad linebacker Eric Nzeocha) but "only" 73 of them played in the preseason opener against Miami. Most of the ones who did not were out due to minor injuries. A good number of those, including Vea and Unrein as noted above, will remain out in Week Two of the preseason. Some players, however, are ready to see their first action, and for at least one it would also account as his NFL and Buccaneers debut.

In the latter category is rookie running back Shaun Wilson, an undrafted free agent out of Duke. A smaller back with great speed who made big plays on offense and in the kicking game as a collegian, Wilson built up some good momentum in the early days of camp but suffered a minor injury and missed much of a week along with the preseason debut. He's back on the field now and adamant that he has lost none of that early momentum.

Head Coach Dirk Koetter had some encouraging words for Wilson early in camp and that, too, has not changed since the rookie worked his way back into action.

"He's looking sharp," said Koetter after Thursday's practice with the Titans. "Obviously you don't like to see a guy miss time when he's banged up, but Shaun should get his first action Saturday night and we're excited to see what he can do."

Expect Wilson to be in the mix on punt and kickoff returns, and excelling in that regard might be his clearest path to a spot on the 53-man roster. With starters leaving fairly early, Wilson might also see plenty of work on offense in the second half, much of which went to Dare Ogunbowale last week in Miami.

Two veterans appear to be on their way to making their preseason debuts after missing Miami's game, and they just happen to be two of the elder statesmen on the roster. That would be 35-year-old cornerback Brent Grimes and 32-year-old offensive tackle Demar Dotson. Grimes and Dotson are also two of the team's most experienced starters and key components in what the team is trying to accomplish this year. Grimes is the Bucs' best cover cornerback and Dotson is coming off a 2017 season in which he played quite well at right tackle before losing the last five games to a knee injury.

Given that Dotson has been very gradually eased back into a full workload after his offseason knee surgery, and that Grimes only recently came back from a camp injury that kept him out for an extended time, neither player may be in line for a huge amount of playing time. Still, seeing them out on the field with the rest of the starters will be encouraging with the regular season rapidly approaching.

3. Can Ronald Jones take a step forward?

Ronald Jones, the Buccaneers'' second-round rookie running back, made his NFL and Buccaneers debut on Thursday against the Dolphins. He scored a touchdown to help the Buccaneers run up an early but gained only nine yards on eight carries and wasn't able to haul in the one ball thrown his way. Koetter reviewed Jones's game performance as "pretty average." Of course, in the same breath Koetter said the team knew that Jones could produce in a big way, and that the team had high expectations for him.

Obviously, one should not read too much into a single performance, especially early in the preseason. That's true even of players who did have nice games in Miami, such as rookie wide receiver Sergio Bailey (four catches for 52 yards). That said, everyone is eager to see Jones, who produced so many big plays at USC, break out in the open field and show what he can do.

The good news for Jones from the Miami game is that there were three separate instances in which he impressed the coaching staff with his pass protection. That's a crucial skill for rookie running backs who want to see the field, especially with a first-string quarterback at risk. With the first-team offense probably playing a bit longer in the second quarter, there's a good chance Jones will get some action with the starters on Saturday night.

View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 joint Training Camp practice with the Tennessee Titans in Nashville, Tennessee.

4. Can the quarterbacks stay sharp?

The best thing to come out of Tampa Bay's preseason-opening win was this line: 37 of 47 for 336 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 103.5 passer rating. That wasn't the work of one of the Bucs' quarterbacks, but all three of them combined.

Ryan Fitzpatrick started, Jameis Winston finished the first half and Ryan Griffin was in command during the second half, and all three posted passer ratings of 93.2 or better. Griffin had the best mark (107.7) because he got the one passing touchdown. Both Fitzpatrick and Winston took their first possessions for touchdowns, but both of those drives ended in scoring runs.

There were specific reasons to like the performances of all three passers. Fitzpatrick was in complete control and he took both of his possessions into Miami territory. His six-for-eight passing line could have been eight-for-eight but Chris Godwin couldn't hold on to a diving catch as he hit the ground and Jones let a short pass fall through his hands. Winston led his first two possessions for 10 points and made a series of very strong throughs through traffic, which is one of his great strengths. Griffin was calmly effective in the second half and very much in charge when the Bucs needed him to be on a two-minute drill to win the game.

Those three set the collective bar quite high in preseason week one, and now they face a Titans secondary that includes a trio of strong corners (Malcolm Butler, Logan Ryan and Adoree' Jackson) and a Pro Bowl safety (Keith Byard). A combined performance similar to the one in Miami would be very encouraging for a team that could need all three of those quarterbacks in the early going thanks to Winston's three-game suspension.

5. Which lesser-known player on the back end of the depth chart will Coach Koetter be talking about after the game?

The Buccaneers quarterbacks were an obvious point of optimism after the first game, as was an offensive line that held strong despite a thinned-out cast and a trio of rookie defensive backs in Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead. But Koetter also had reason to praise some players who one might not have guessed would be topics of conversation headed into that contest. Most notably, the young wideout trio of Sergio Bailey, Erv Philips and Jake Lampman helped the offense keep moving in the second half and were instrumental in the game-winning drive.

It's possible that any one of those three, or perhaps all of them, will be hearing Koetter's praise again after Saturday's game. On the other hand, the spotlight could fell elsewhere, such as on the aforementioned Shaun Wilson. Some other possibilities to gain attention for the first time this weekend include the recently-added cornerback duo of De'Vante Harris and Amari Coleman, both of whom figure to see plenty of playing time with several others at their position working through injuries. Rookie tight end Tanner Hudson has made a series of nice plays in practice recently and could carry that into the game. Or perhaps a young pass-rusher like Evan Perrizo or Demone Harris will take some second-half playing time and use it to make a big play or two.

Preseason games tend to turn the attention to players who are not yet household names in their respective NFL cities. It will be interesting to see if any of the Bucs' young and unknown performers will be topics of conversation in Koetter's postgame press conference.

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