Greg Schiano knows his players are looking forward to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' preseason opener against Baltimore on Thursday night, but not for the reason most people would guess.
The Buccaneers have been locked into training camp mode since July 25, which for the players means taxing daily practices, an all-consuming focus on football and very little else. The arrival of the first game means something fresh and new…not to mention, paradoxically, a break from the grind.
"This has been a very physical, tough, 'get-after-each other' camp," said Schiano, who is heading into his second preseason as Tampa Bay's head coach. "I think they love it now because it slows down a little before the game, and it slows down a little after the game for about 24 hours. And then we're back at it Saturday, you know, kicking it again. So, I know that's kind of opposite of what one would think."
But, yes, the players are eager to hit somebody in a different uniform, too, and to really hit them, as opposed to the "pro thud" form employed on the practice field. More importantly, the men who are going to see the majority of the playing time on Thursday night – those second, third and fourth on the depth chart – are eager to perform when it really matters. Thursday's game doesn't matter from the standpoint of the standings, but it is a critical step up from the practice field in the evaluation process.
"Call it what it is," said Schiano. "There are a bunch of guys who know unless they go do something really bad, they're going to be on this football team. But there are a lot of guys that are trying to make this football team, to make the 53, and these games are huge. And they're not only huge for us, but they're huge for their careers. If it doesn't work out with the Bucs, they're on tape. If they can put good tape out there, then they've got a chance to sign with one of the other 31 teams.
"I want to see some of the second and third and fourth-team guys compete. How do they compete when the lights come on? They do what they've been doing out here; can they do it in the stadium against another team? Those are things that are important…and then can do it for a sustained period of time? Can they stay focused for a three-hour football game, and stay in the game and not have a mental lapse? All those things."
Schiano and his coaching staff put together their plan for splitting up the reps in Thursday's game on Sunday, while the players were enjoying a day off. He hasn't revealed the specifics of that plan, keeping it close to the vest not for competitive reasons against the Ravens but because he doesn't want his own players to know ahead of time what to expect. The substitutions won't necessarily come by entire units, either; Schiano said there are individual plans for different players. And, of course, there are some starters, such as defensive end Adrian Clayborn and cornerback Darrelle Revis, who obviously won't play in the opener.
Still, if Schiano follows the typical four-game preseason flow, he will likely only expose his starters on both sides of the ball to one or two series against the Ravens. That means a lot of playing time for some young men, including rookie quarterback Mike Glennon. Schiano specifically said that Glennon needs to play "a lot" in order to get his feet wet, though that likely was in reference to the entire preseason and not just Thursday's game.
There are no official inactives during the preseason, but Schiano will probably release a list of players who definitely won't participate on Thursday night in the hours leading up to the game. In addition to Clayborn and Revis, it's unlikely that Pro Bowl guards Davin Joseph and Carl Nicks will suit up, and the lack of practice time to this point for tight end Luke Stocker and fullback Erik Lorig would seem to make them significant question marks. Buccaneers.com will provide a pregame story prior to kickoff with all available lineup and injury information.
The reason that Schiano and his staff designed different play-time plans for different players on Thursday night is that some of the team's potential key contributors have more ground to cover than others. For instance, new starting left end Da'Quan Bowers is attempting to prove he can successfully transition from a role as a situational pass-rusher to the more rigorous job of being an every-down player. Others, like second-year safety Mark Barron, are being tried out in some different offensive and defensive packages and the coaching staff wants to get a live look at how that process is going. Barron, already the team's starting strong safety, may be playing quite a bit in dime packages this season, closer to the line of scrimmage. And for all players and coaches, Thursday's game is a chance to learn the rhythms and responsibilities of a game day so that there are no surprises when the regular season arrives.
"These games are huge for people for different reasons, but collectively, as an organization, we get an opportunity to go in a stadium, against another team, and do all the things that we have to do," said Schiano. "So, it's from pre-game to warm-up to playing the game to postgame – how we handle ourselves. It truly is a practice run."