View exclusive behind-the-scenes photos of the Buccaneers' game against the Detroit Lions from Team Photographer Kyle Zedaker
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have one preseason game left and several roster and depth chart decisions still to make before the cut-down to 53 players. That last game is generally devoted exclusively to reserves and young players, so it is an excellent opportunity for those on the bubble to make a final good impression.
First-year offensive lineman Mike Liedtke didn't wait for that last opportunity, nor did rookie running back Shaun Wilson. And while sixth-year defensive end Will Gholston may not have had as steep of a hill to climb when training camp started, he's still battling for playing time among a group of linemen that is much deeper than it was a year ago. Gholston didn't wait until the last minute to make his impression, either.
All three of those players were among the Buccaneers' top performers in Friday night's 33-30 loss to the Detroit Lions, and all three have specifically helped themselves by proving capable of performing multiple jobs.
Liedtke's story is probably the best of the three, as he started training camp well down the depth chart and as of Friday night was the starting left tackle. That Liedtke started was, of course, the result of a practice-field injury to Donovan Smith, who will definitely go back to that front-line spot when he's healthy. And Liedtke has also seen his opportunity grow by injuries to such young tackles as Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer, all of whom were sidelined for most of training camp. As Head Coach Dirk Koetter noted on Saturday afternoon, Liedtke wasn't even considered one of the team's top eight options at offensive tackle when camp began, and was working primarily inside.
But what matters is that Liedtke has seized that opportunity, and handled a new position quite well. The Buccaneers only allowed one sack against the Lions and Liedtke played 85% of the offensive snaps.
"I think he's really handled it well," said Koetter of Liedtke's extended cameo on the quarterbacks' blind side. "Mike's always been a guy that's prided himself on versatility. He's bounced around a couple teams and I know that Mike has told me before that he's appreciated his opportunity here because he got to learn the system. You get to learn what you're doing and what's expected of you at your position, or your positions, in his case.
"Versatility definitely counts. I know across the league, O-Linemen are going down. When you get down to just having seven guys up, active on a real game day, guys that can play multiple spots is important."
On the other side of the trenches, the Buccaneers are almost as beat up at defensive tackle. Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy is still playing but the team was without its next three players on the depth chart at DT on Friday night: rookie Vita Vea and veterans Beau Allen and Mitch Unrein. Gholston is no stranger to taking some snaps inside, and his power game lends itself to holding up against run blocks, but against the Lions Gholston actually started on the inside next to McCoy. He used that opportunity inside to notch one of the Bucs' three sacks, his occurring on third down and killing a Lions drive.
"We're missing players at multiple positions," said Koetter. "I thought Will Gholston had a really good night. He's showing his versatility by playing inside some. So I thought he did a nice job."
Finally there's Wilson, the undrafted rookie out of Duke. A smaller but explosive back with great speed, Wilson has handled most of the team's kickoff return duties over the last two games. He got few chances to bring kicks out against the Titans in Week Two but Detroit – whether by design or not – kicked all but one of their seven kickoffs short of the goal line. Wilson averaged 26.6 yards on five returns, got 30 or more yards on three of them and every single one of his returns got at least to the 25-yard line and was thus as good as a touchback.
The return job certainly seems like Wilson's most direct path to a roster spot, but Koetter was actually pleased with everything the rookie back did on Friday night. That included three runs for 10 yards and one catch for 11 yards.
"I think you'd have to say he helped himself, not only on kickoffs but just the way he played in all facets of the game last night," said Koetter. "He was definitely slowed around that Miami game that he missed with his injury, and you're never sure exactly when they're back to a hundred percent. But he really showed up last night and he helped himself, for sure."
Liedtke got his chance to shine thanks to a run of O-Line injuries, and as unfair as it may to players like Wester and Gardner, that can factor into the roster decisions made a week from now. Similarly, Wilson moved up a spot in the pecking order when Charles Sims landed on injured reserve last week. None of the injuries that led to Gholston's start at defensive tackle on Friday night appear to be long-term issues, but that doesn't diminish the value that Gholston has shown by playing multiple spots. Those three players helped themselves Friday night, and they will continue to help themselves with their versatility.