View photos from the Buccaneers' 2018 Training Camp practice Wednesday at One Buccaneer Place.
Through the first two weeks of the 2018 preseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have scored 56 points. That's 13 more than they scored in all four games last summer. The Buccaneers currently rank first in the NFL in the preseason in net passing yards per game (345.5), second in total net yards per game (414.0) and first downs per game (24.5), third in sacks allowed per pass attempt (2.20%) and fourth in points per game (28.0).
None of those numbers will count once the Buccaneers' regular season begins on September 9, but they do offer some insight into how training camp went, at least on the offensive side of the ball. According to Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken that's a function of how the team has practiced. And that is a big change from last year.
"It's a hell of lot more fun when it works and it's not any fun when it doesn't work," said Monken after the Buccaneers' final practice of training camp on Wednesday. "And it just happens that at this point, we've done fine, we've moved it and made some plays. The things we've been working on have shown up. To me, that's the biggest thing. I'll say it again: It's a byproduct of what we do out here. It's a rarity that it shows up in the game and we haven't done it out here."
"I think we're doing it so much better this year. Maybe I've lost my mind [but] what we're doing out here is so much better than the [crap] we did last year in practice. We earned that by the way we approached it. We haven't been doing that this year."
Monken has seen a significantly better approach to practice and preparation in 2018, and while he was only trying to speak for the offense that has surely been the case for the entire squad. Other than a few more penalties than the coaches would have liked in the Tennessee game last Saturday, the Buccaneers have played relatively clean football and they've maintained a good level of intensity for a full 60 minutes in each outing.
"We have a nice year two years ago and all the sudden it's human nature: 'Hey, here we go. Bucs. Here it is. We've arrived,'" said Monken. "And we drink the Kool-Aid. 'Hard Knocks' comes rolling in and we add some pieces and all of a sudden we think you're just going to take the field against grown men, the best in the world, and it's just going to happen. We all saw, that's not how it works. It works by the work you put in and the attention to detail that you do every single day. And you don't except laziness, mediocrity, balls on the ground, turnovers, false starts, bad football."
Monken is fond of the saying, 'Bad football loses before good football wins,' which he says he got from Bobby Knight and adapted to his sport of choice. He pointed to a stretch late last season in which the offense started to show new life but the Bucs still lost one game in overtime and then three more by exactly three points each. It's admittedly a tiny sample size, and one that won't count in a couple weeks, but the Buccaneers of 2018 are not beating themselves. Tampa Bay has committed just one turnover so far (a fumble in Miami), has allowed just two sacks, is converting nearly 45% of its third-down attempts and is completing almost 70% of its passes.
That sort of efficiency has allowed the Buccaneers to turn their big plays into points, such as the 38-yard catch by Mike Evans that set up a field goal in Tennessee or the 54-yard strike from Jameis Winston to DeSean Jackson that ignited a 91-yard touchdown drive that same night.
"We're doing that better," said Monken. "Maybe not so much the other night with the penalties, but in turnovers. That's the biggest thing. It's preseason [but] if you're explosive and you don't turn it over – which we've been – you're going to score points. Again, it's preseason, so I want to say that. But with that being said, you're right. I don't know who said it [but] I heard this the other day on the radio: 'It doesn't count, but it does matter.' The games don't count, but it does matter. You want to see the guys play well. It's been good, it's been fun."
The Buccaneers spent almost four weeks in training camp, beginning with a practice on July 26 and ending on Wednesday. Camp is technically over but there won't be any break in the work. After playing Detroit on Friday night, the Buccaneers will go to a schedule that resembles what they do in the regular season, with practice in the afternoon instead of the morning. They will still have 91 players on the roster, right up until the cut to 53 on September 1. There are still plenty of players fighting for roster spots and starting jobs.
"Cuts are coming, we've got guys fighting for jobs, guys trying to make those last spots," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "I love how these guys are working. Even though training camp is over, evaluation is not over. For guys that are not in that top 22-to-30 players, evaluation these last two preseason games matters, a lot."
The Buccaneers have started the preseason off with a pair of encouraging wins – again, they may not count but they can matter – and have two more to continue the momentum. In the first one, all the healthy starters will get a large dose of action; in the second one, it will be almost all rookies and young players taking the reps. In both cases, they can succeed by continuing to approach practice the right way and then translating that to game night.
"Our guys have made plays, and that's what it's all about," said Monken. "It's not as if we get into the game and we dial up just anything. It's stuff that we've worked on, it's stuff that our guys are good at. So that's the biggest thing, is getting it done out here, and then we can get it done [in the games]."
LINE DANCE: If anything is going to slow down the Buccaneers' offensive momentum in the preseason, it could be a run of injuries that started in Week Two of camp and has not slowed down since. Most recently, starting left tackle Donovan Smith was helped off the field early in Tuesday's practice and starting left guard Ali Marpet went to the sideline later in that same workout. Neither practiced on Wednesday, nor did starting right guard Caleb Benenoch. Since that was the team's last full-speed workout before Friday's game, there is obviously a reasonable chance that 60% of the team's starting line will be unavailable against the Lions.
The Buccaneers are particularly thin at tackle, where Leonard Wester and Cole Gardner are also out, and have been since the early part of camp. Rookie tackle Cole Boozer returned to practice Wednesday after an extended absence but only in a limited fashion.
"Well, unfortunately, depth at tackle is probably our biggest issue right now," said Koetter. "I think as of today, four of our top six offensive tackles didn't practice today. So, yeah, it's let us see a lot of guys, and some guys we weren't even planning on playing [at] tackle."
One player that Koetter is likely referring to in that last line is first-year lineman Mike Liedtke, who began camp primarily working at guard. With the rash of injuries to tackles, however, Liedtke has been pressed into service at left tackle in each of the first two preseason games – coming in with the second unit – and he has held up well at that spot. If the Buccaneers use the same first-line combination on Friday night that they did in practice on Wednesday, Liedtke would be in there with the starting offense.
The Bucs' first group of linemen on Wednesday began with Liedtke at left tackle and Adam Gettis at left guard. Ryan Jensen and Demar Dotson held down their customary positions at center and right tackle, respectively, but rookie third-rounder Alex Cappa took over for Benenoch at right guard.
Koetter declined to give any specifics on the injuries or status of Smith and the other sidelined players though he did say the team was fortunate not to have any issues with its starters that appear to be "too long-lasting." Still, there are immediate adjustments that have to be made for the short term.
"Any time any player gets hurt, that's the first thing that goes through my mind and the first thing I'm sure that goes through Jason [Licht]'s mind is, 'When do we get him back, and how does it affect [the lineup]?' It's all a chain reaction. Any time a guy gets hurt, it affects the rotation of other guys and it affects if Jason has to go outside and look for something else. Whether it's Donovan's injury or any other guy that goes down, it's the same."
SPEAKING UP: On several different occasions during training camp, Koetter praised new Buccaneer defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul for his leadership and his approach to practice. The Bucs knew what type of player they were getting when they sent a third-round pick to the Giants for the veteran pass-rusher, but they have been pleasantly surprised at the impact Pierre-Paul has made on his teammates.
In the last two days, Pierre-Paul has also made an impact on some other groups after practice. On Tuesday, he was one of a large group of players who helped out with a rousing camp for visiting Special Olympians, and he was clearly a ringleader of the action. On Wednesday, Pierre-Paul was instrumental in helping a group of about 100 local students take part in exercises and flag football inside the Bucs' new indoor facility. That activity came after the announcement of the new Jr. Bucs School Program being launched by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers Foundation.
Pierre-Paul spoke extensively to the Bucs' visitors on Tuesday and Wednesday. Perhaps that's an extension of what he thinks is the most important thing in building a successful defense on the field.
"We've got to learn how to play with each other and communication is the key to the whole thing," he said. "I feel like without communication, it's not going to work and that's with any team you go to. But we're doing a lot of talking out there. I see us picking up more and more as we get through training camp. We only have two more games left, so we've got to pick it up in two more games, then it's real. It gets real."