Not only did the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' first-team offense get the fast start that Head Coach Dirk Koetter had been seeking on Friday night, it essentially never stopped until halftime.
With QB Jameis Winston at the top of his game, the Buccaneers scored on their first four offensive possessions on the way to a 30-13 thrashing of the visiting Cleveland Browns in the third week of the preseason. That nearly flawless attack, which piled up 305 yards by the intermission, got help from a Buccaneer defense that sacked QB Robert Griffin III five times in the first half and allowed just 163 yards by the Browns' full starting offense. Tampa Bay's special teams also pitched in with their best outing of the preseason, including three Robert Aguayo field goals and a 73-yard punt return touchdown by WR Adam Humphries.
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"It helps us out so much," said Winston of the contributions from defense and special teams. "We've been playing great football all around. Defense has been playing tremendous football all year, special teams, offense started fast and we put up some points."
The Buccaneers improved to 2-1 on the preseason with a win in their first home game of 2016. That doubled as the debut of the new Raymond James Stadium, complete with more than 31,000 square feet of new video displays. The huge high-definition videoboards in the end zone, covering 9,600 square feet each, may have given Winston and his crew some added motivation to get off to that fast start.
Pictures from the Buccaneers' preseason matchup with the Browns.
"We're blessed to have these amazing scoreboards; what was done to the stadium for this year is tremendous and players notice," said Winston. "We came out pregame and were like, 'Wow, this is amazing,' and we did not want to disappoint the people here."
Koetter's original plan was to play both starting lineups into the third quarter but Winston's outstanding first half clearly showed him enough and Mike Glennon took over after halftime. Winston finished with 259 yards on 16-of-25 passing, with two touchdowns, no interceptions and a sparkling 125.3 passer rating, and he consistently made big plays after moving around in the pocket to avoid pressure. The second-year passer scrambled to set up a third-down five-yard touchdown pass to RB Charles Sims in the first quarter, and threw a 34-yard scoring pass to WR Mike Evans with six minutes left in the half.
In what will likely be the case during the regular season, Evans was Winston's favorite target. The third-year receiver caught all five passes thrown in his direction for 115 yards, including a 47-yarder that led to Aguayo's second field goal in the second quarter. Vincent Jackson added 78 yards on four grabs. In addition to his big play in the return game, Humphries also caught two passes for 39 yards, including a key 23-yarder on third down that led to Sims's touchdown.
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"It's important to contribute to this team in any way I can," said Humphries, who won the team's slot receiver job, and apparently the punt return role as well, early in training camp. "Obviously I'm going to do whatever the coaches ask me to do and give my all, give great effort. The last time I returned [a punt for a touchdown] was in college against Louisville. Obviously there were some great blocks on the return [tonight] so you have to give it up to the whole team."
Winston threw five passes in the direction of Humphries, who worked the middle of the field throughout the first half and absorbed some hard hits in the process.
"That's what he does – he just makes plays," said Winston of his fellow second-year player. "He's amazing. We are so blessed to have him on this football team."
Aguayo, who had missed two field goals and one extra point during the Buccaneers' first two preseason games, looked like the deadly-accurate kicker the team envisioned when they took him in the second round of the 2016 draft. Aguayo started the scoring with a 48-yard field goal on the game's opening drive, added a 21-yarder in the second quarter and a 27-yarder in the fourth quarter and made all three of his extra point tries easily. The former Florida State star also was a weapon of suppression on kickoffs, forcing touchbacks on all seven of his kicks. WR Bernard Reedy added a 43-yard punt return to the extremely productive night for the Bucs' special teams.
DE Jacquies Smith led the rush on Griffin with two of the five first-half sacks, with William Gholston and Noah Spence adding one each and Gerald McCoy combining with Robert Ayers for the fifth. Kwon Alexander, Howard Jones and Kourtnei Brown added to the Bucs' sack total in the second half. The Bucs' eight total sacks were their most in a preseason game since at least the summer of 2000.
WATCH: HUMPHRIES PUNT RETURN TD
The Buccaneers got the fast start they wanted on offense thanks to two sharp Winston-to-Evans passes totaling 39 yards on the game's opening drive. A third-and-three pass to Jackson at the Cleveland 30 was broken up CB Justin Gilbert, giving Koetter an early decision to make. Koetter chose to send his previously-struggling rookie kicker out to try a 48-yarder and Aguayo drilled it down the middle for the game's first points.
Tampa Bay's defense forced a quick third-and-eight on the Browns' first drive but gave Griffin too much time to throw on third down and he eventually found WR Josh Gordon wide open deep for a 44-yard gain. Jacquies Smith got instant penetration on a third-and-10 from the Bucs' 16 and chased Griffin out of bounds for a one-yard sack, leading to Patrick Murray's game-tying 35-yard field goal.
The Bucs' fast start on offense continued on the next possession with a 13-play, 82-yard touchdown drive on which Winston converted three third downs with an equal mixture of good work with his legs and arms. The first was a nine-yard scramble on third-and-seven in Buccaneer territory, the second a 23-yard strike to Humphries between two levels of the Cleveland defense to get the ball to the opponents' 10-yard line. On third-and-five from the goal he used both skills, scrambling to avoid several near-sacks and extend the play long enough to hit Sims with a five-yard touchdown strike.
Tampa Bay's defense forced the first punt of the game on the Browns' second possession, with Lavonte David breaking up a first-down pass and McCoy drawing a holding call to erase a third-down scramble by Griffin. Andy Lee came on to boom a 52-yard punt that Humphries fielded at the Bucs' 27, taking off to his right and running untouched to the opposite end zone to give the Bucs a two-touchdown lead.
After another Cleveland three-and-out, Winston drove the Bucs' 69 yards on 10 plays to set up Aguayo's 21-yard field goal. Once again, it was Winston's easy mobility in the pocket that kept the drive alive, as he slid to his right to escape pressure before hitting Jackson for a gain of 18 to midfield, one play before finding the same receiver down the left sideline for 31 more. Winston also bought time on a third-and-six completion to Sims that put the ball at the Cleveland four, but the drive stalled there and the Bucs settled for three points and a 20-3 lead with 10 minutes left in the half.
A sack by Gholston and another one split by McCoy and Ayers on third down forced another Cleveland punt three minutes later. The McCoy/Ayers takedown of Griffin actually caused a fumble, as the Bucs established with a replay review, but the referee could determine no clear recovery of the ball by Tampa Bay and thus the call stood. On the next play from scrimmage, Winston dropped a perfect pass into the hands of a streaking Evans down the right sideline for a gain of 47 to the Cleveland 38. Two plays later, Winston found Evans again for a 34-yard touchdown to extend the Bucs' lead to 27-3 with six minutes left in the half.
The Browns finally found the end zone just past the two-minute warning of the first half when Griffin hit WR Josh Gordon on a 43-yard touchdown bomb. Bucs CB Brent Grimes had good coverage on the entire route but Gordon powered through him at the goal line to make an impressive catch as he crossed the goal line.
It was still 27-10 in the third quarter, with both teams going to their reserves, when Buccaneers RB Storm Johnson fumbled and the Browns' Charles Gaines recovered the loose ball at Tampa Bay's 11. Johnthan Banks' second pass-defensed in as many Cleveland plays helped keep the Browns out of the end zone, with Travis Coons coming on to hit a 26-yard field goal to make it 27-13.
The Buccaneers got those three points right back as Glennon led an eight-play scoring drive set up by Reedy's long return to the Cleveland 34. Aguayo finished it with his third field goal of the night, a 27-yarder, for the game's final points.