Last Friday in Kansas City, 73 different players contributed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 25-0 whitewash of the Chiefs in both team's 2011 preseason opener.
That's 20 more players than the Buccaneers will even have on their roster once the regular-season begins, and up to 30 more than will actually play on any particular game day in September or December. Furthermore, dozens of those 73 saw significant action – rookie cornerback Anthony Gaitor, for instance, saw more action than 15th-year veteran teammate, Ronde Barber.
Who contributed most heavily to that dominant Bucs' victory? It's hard to say. Starting quarterback Josh Freeman led the Bucs to 13 points in four possessions, which was all the defense needed for the victory in the end, but second-string passer Josh Johnson led the team in both passing yards and rushing yards. Starting right end Michael Bennett had half a sack and a safety but Kyle Moore and George Johnson, both currently listed third on the depth chart at defensive end, combined for three sacks.
If the Buccaneers are to realize their goal of making the playoffs in 2011, the likely stars are easy to predict: Freeman, Barber, Mike Williams, LeGarrette Blount, Gerald McCoy, Quincy Black, etc.
If the Buccaneers are to down the New England Patriots on Thursday night and run their 2011 preseason record to 2-0, the key efforts could come from any two or three of 75 different players. The same is true for the Patriots, who come to Tampa on the heels of a 47-12 win over Jacksonville in which all-everything quarterback Tom Brady didn't even play.
So let's identify five Buccaneer players worth keeping an eye on Thursday at Raymond James Stadium. Some are starters, some are experienced backups, some are rookies. All could be game-changers on Thursday night.
- Dekoda Watson
The second-year linebacker recorded 1.5 sacks against Kansas City and often had reserve quarterbacks Tyler Palko and Ricky Stanzi running for their lives. Both of Watson's sacks came when he was lining up as a stand-up edge rusher in Tampa Bay's "Redskin" alignment, which replaces one of the four down linemen with a linebacker. That's a job Quincy Black handled frequently in 2010, and occasionally to very good effect (just ask former Carolina quarterback Matt Moore).
Watson could be forcing the Buccaneers' coaching staff to consider him as a very real option for that job in the regular season. Watson stands 6-2, has outstanding speed and is seemingly cut out of a block of pure muscle. He might also be another recent seventh-round find for the Buccaneers, who have certainly had good luck with former Florida State linebackers. Head Coach Raheem Morris mentioned near the beginning of training camp that he was planning to devise a 20 to 30-play package for Watson, and it's hard to imagine Morris reversing that plan after last Friday's opener. Look for Watson to get another significant opportunity to rush the passer on Thursday night.
- Josh Johnson
Johnson may be turning into the quarterback equivalent of Earnest Graham. For years, Graham toiled mostly as a special teams ace and a very occasional spot ballcarrier during the regular season, but every preseason he would emerge as one of the NFL's leading rushers. Graham earned the affectionate title of "Mr. August," but that nickname has long since given way to "Insurance Graham."
That's Morris' favorite way to refer to his backfield security blanket, as Graham has proven he can do it all. In 2007, after injuries to several other backs, Graham also proved he was a NFL-caliber starter, rushing for almost 1,000 yards in about two-thirds of a season.
Similarly, Johnson is working on his third consecutive standout preseason. He was masterful against the Chiefs, compiling a 116.0 passer rating while also rushing for 57 yards, and he should see another large chunk of playing time on Thursday against the Patriots. Barring injury, Johnson is not likely to crack the Tampa Bay's starting lineup anytime soon, but his continued emergence is nonetheless a big plus for the Buccaneers.
Against the Chiefs, Johnson showed a good eye for deciding when it was a good option to tuck the ball and run. He is a passer first and foremost, but his ability to pick up big yards on the run cannot be ignored by the opposition. If the game is close when the starters head to the sidelines on Thursday, Johnson could be the difference for the Bucs between winning and losing.
- Gerald McCoy
There's no real mystery about the role McCoy will fill in 2011. He will start at the team's three-technique DT spot and try to bring the sort of disruptiveness to that position the team has coveted for years.
But McCoy didn't play in the preseason opener in K.C. due to a minor shoulder injury, which makes Thursday's game his 2011 debut. And that's a debut the Buccaneers are very eager to see. McCoy has often been dominant on the practice field in training camp, and the team thinks he may be ready to take his game to the next level.
The third overall pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy did not make a huge impact in the early weeks of his rookie campaign, but he was coming on strong before an arm injury cut his season short by a month. The former Oklahoma star says he's much more comfortable in the Bucs' defensive schemes as his second NFL year begins, and he's ready to make plays on the fly in 2011. The Bucs would love to see a glimpse of that on Thursday against the Patriots.
- Jock Sanders
A former Bay area prep star at St. Pete Catholic, Sanders will get his first opportunity to put on an NFL jersey in front of his hometown crowd on Thursday.
Sanders was an impact player in several ways at West Virginia, but he passed through the draft unselected, almost surely because, at 5-6, he's well below the average NFL height. The Bucs signed him as an undrafted free agent believing he could be an explosive playmaker, especially in the return game.
The Buccaneers do have several proven return men coming back from the 2010 squad, including Micheal Spurlock and Sammie Stroughter. But Sanders has been rotating with those two during the special teams periods of training camp practice, and he had the best runback of the night against the Chiefs last Friday.
In all, Sanders returned two punts for 34 yards in Kansas City, including a weaving 21-yarder in the fourth quarter on which he nearly got around the edge for an even bigger gain. Sanders' best bet to get his foot in the door in Tampa will be on special teams, and he's likely to get another good luck on Thursday against the Patriots.
- Corey Lynch
Corey Lynch is an outstanding special teams player and he has a knack for blocking kicks that few can match. Last summer, however, it wasn't clear how much the team believed in his long-term future as a safety.
Then, in the preseason finale against Houston, Lynch got a chance to start at strong safety and he made the most of it, intercepting two passes and returning them for a total of 119 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a second-quarter lead they would never relinquish.
That performance likely helped Lynch make the 53-man roster, and he did indeed have a strong impact on special teams thereafter. However, he ended up being even more valuable to the team after a suspension cost Tanard Jackson most of the year and an injury ended Cody Grimm's season five weeks early. Lynch stepped into the starting free safety job and played well, helping the Bucs win three of their last five games during a tight playoff race.
The Buccaneers' depth chart at safety is crowded with interesting prospects, including Lynch. Grimm and Sean Jones are the starters and fifth-round pick Ahmad Black was a player the Bucs coveted highly in the 2011 draft. Larry Asante is listed ahead of Black at free safety and turned in a fine performance in Kansas City. Dominique Harris and Devin Holland round out the safety group, and the Bucs might also get Jackson back at some point.
Lynch may have already proven he belongs with his efforts in 2010. Still, another strong preseason would certainly not hurt his cause.