QB Luke McCown will get the start against Houston as the Bucs rest Jeff Garcia and Brian Griese
Every snap in a preseason finale in the NFL qualifies as one of two things: One last tune-up for starter, or one last opportunity for a young player to make his mark.
As is usually the case with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers – and at most posts around the league – the team has come down on the side of the latter option. On Thursday night in Houston, in their final warm-up before the regular season, the Buccaneers will play mostly reserves throughout the game's 60 minutes. The opposing Texans are likely to do the same, as most teams in the league are looking for some last bits of evidence to help with the 22-man cuts coming on Saturday.
"We're going to sit down a lot of guys tonight, honestly, guys that we know have made the football team," said Tampa Bay Head Coach Jon Gruden. "And we're going to look at a lot of players extensively tonight that need to be evaluated. We're interested in keeping the right 53 guys and that's what we're going to do. We're anxious to see some of these guys play with the lights on."
Not surprisingly, Jeff Garcia will be held out of the game; Gruden said 10 or 12 snaps against the Texans won't make much difference in the starting quarterback's readiness for New Orleans in 10 days. However, the Buccaneers will also sit QB Brian Griese, giving all of the snaps to Luke McCown, Chris Simms and rookie Josh Johnson.
Griese's night off is an indication that he has impressed the coaching staff through the first three games of the preseason.
"I think Brian's made this football team and he's going to make things real interesting around here, I believe," said Gruden. "He's a talented guy. We'll see Luke McCown early; he'll give way to Chris and Josh and these three guys need to play. They deserve to play."
By starting with McCown, the Bucs will be able to give a larger share of reps to Simms and Johnson, even if McCown plays extensively. Through the first three games, Simms has thrown only 15 passes and Johnson has thrown only two.
Those three will be aiming at mostly young targets, as receivers Joey Galloway, Michael Clayton and Antonio Bryant will be rested, too. Galloway returned to practice this past week but is "not quite 100 percent," according to Gruden. Clayton suffered a chest injury against Jacksonville and Bryant is trying to overcome some swelling in his knee.
As with Garcia, the Bucs are hoping to get Galloway ready for the regular season opener with a good number of reps on the practice field.
"He looks fast, he looks good," said Gruden of the team's top deep threat. "I think he's just got to get himself in condition now. Now that he's got the [groin] injury healed I think he's got to get himself in condition, and we've got to condition. That's what we'll do with him at the stadium; hours before kickoff you'll see Galloway out there conditioning. He's got to get himself back in game condition. In the meantime, he'll be pushed for playing time by the some of the guys that have performed well here."
Maurice Stovall and Brian Clark will get the starts at the two receiver positions, Stovall at Galloway's split end spot and Clark at Ike Hilliard's flanker spot. The Bucs will also start a second-team offensive line, open with Ben Troupe at tight end and pair Michael Bennett and Byron Storer in the backfield.
The defense will start entirely with reserves, too, including Charles Bennett and Greg Peterson at the defensive end spots, Adam Hayward at middle linebacker and Sabby Piscitelli at strong safety. The rookie duo of Aqib Talib (first-round pick) and Elbert Mack (undrafted free agent) will start at cornerback.
Though the Bucs did give Garcia and Galloway a significant number of snaps on the practice field this past week, they also focused on the young men who will do most of the work on Thursday night. That had to be done in a hurry, given the realities of two games and a road trip in a six-day period.
"It was a short week," said Gruden. "We played Saturday night and here we are in Houston already. We had two good days – one padded and one in shorts – to preview the Texans and try to get a lot of guys that have to show well tonight prepared to play."
Though you probably won't see many of them on the field for long tonight, if at all, the Texans have a strong nucleus of young players, according to Gruden.
"They've done a nice job over the years," he said. "A lot of their high draft choices have come through for them. They're talented up front on defense and they're skilled on offense. I think [Matt] Schaub's a very good up-and-coming quarterback in the league, they have one of the game's best deep threats in Andre Johnson. They're a good, well-coached football team."
The Bucs will take on that team tonight, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. Buccaneers.com will provide coverage of all the action at halftime and at the conclusion of the game.