NFL coaches often reserve judgment on a game until they've had a chance to thoroughly review the videotape. That will be surely be the approach for coaches of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers following Wednesday night's 30-3 loss at FedExField at the hands of the Washington Redskins.
No amount of tape review is going to make the outcome look more favorable, as the Buccaneers were outgained on the evening 460 yards to 160. However, since the preseason finale is generally seen as a last chance for those on the roster bubble to win their way past the upcoming cuts, there will be plenty of individual performances that call for a close examination.
In order to get a long look at those young players, and to avoid any more critical injuries before the beginning of the games that count, the Buccaneers rested all of their starters, as well as several key reserves. The Redskins did the same. For example, third-stringer Brett Ratliff opened the game at quarterback for the Bucs and he handed off to rookie RB Michael Smith. Neither Doug Martin nor LeGarrette Blount saw any time in the backfield, and the entire first-line defense got the night off, too. The Redskins skipped over both Robert Griffin III and veteran Rex Grossman to start rookie QB Kirk Cousins and held out such defensive stalwarts as Ryan Kerrigan, London Fletcher and DeAngelo Hall.
"This game is important because you have to see what guys are going to be able to play with us," said LB Adam Hayward, who did not play. "We're going to need them in different areas. Special teams and backing up starters is very important, and this game helps show who can do that."
The long list of rested players led to a number of players being used at different positions and in unfamiliar situations. For instance, neither punter Michael Koenen nor kicker Connor Barth played, which left all of the kicking duties to rookie Kai Forbath. On punts, Forbath took his snaps from reserve TE Zack Pianalto and not usual long-snapper Andrew Economos. Tampa Bay's reserve defensive linemen shifted all over the front throughout the game, with usual end Daniel Te'o-Nesheim occasionally seen on the inside, and so on.
In that atmosphere of experimentation and roster examination, Redskins rookie QB Kirk Cousins had a strong night and the Washington offense rode two of its primary running backs – Evan Royster and Roy Helu – to a 228-yard rushing night. Cousins completed 15 of 27 passes for 222 yards and one interception. He was relieved in the second half by Jonathan Crompton.
The Bucs stuck with Ratliff for the entire night, resting both Josh Freeman and Dan Orlovsky. Ratliff was under pressure most of the evening, absorbing five sacks and a punishing 15 QB hits while completing 14 of 30 passes for 164 yards and three interceptions. His favorite target was WR Tiquan Underwood, who caught six passes for 82 yards.
Underwood may have helped his cause before Friday's roster cuts, as wide receiver is a difficult spot on the Bucs' depth chart to predict after starters Vincent Jackson and Mike Williams. In addition to his team-leading catch totals, Underwood also showed impressive hustle on an interception by Washington LB Bryan Kehl, saving a potential touchdown by running Kehl down from behind.
Rookie S Sean Baker may have also helped his cause quite a bit, recording six tackles, two interceptions, one fumble recovery and two passes defensed. He was responsible for all three of Tampa Bay's takeaways. Rookie LB Najee Goode, who started the game at middle linebacker and played the entire first half, covered a lot of ground and finished with two tackles, one tackle for loss and one pass defensed. CB Myron Lewis, who is battling for a job as a nickel or dime back, broke up two passes and added three tackles and a tackle for loss. Second-year S Ahmad Black played extensively in the first half and had a tackle and a key pass break-up.
"[This game] is very important for a lot of people," said Black. "There are a lot of guys trying to get their role on the team, and show what they can do. As a player, to stay in the league, you need this."
The Buccaneers also gave tackle Jamon Meredith a long look at right guard in the wake of the season-ending injury to starter Davin Joseph. The Bucs played much of the game with their third-string blockers, however, and never established a running game without Blount or Martin in the mix. Young backs Smith, Madu and Robert Hughes combined to carry the ball 17 times for 31 yards, and the Bucs went largely to the pass after falling well behind.
Washington built a 13-0 lead by early in the second quarter. Tampa Bay's defensive reserves did manage one stop near the edge of the red zone and one inside the 10 to force the Redskins to settle for a pair of Billy Cundiff field goals in the first period. However, a 46-yard catch by WR Anthony Armstrong set up RB Evan Royster for a one-yard TD plunge in the second quarter.
Meanwhile, the Bucs' offense struggled to find any rhythm with Ratliff behind a line of reserves. The Bucs had just four first downs in the first half, gained a total of 38 net yards (hurt by five sacks of Ratliff for 35 yards) and converted one of six third downs. With rookie kicker Kai Forbath handling the punting duties, often admirably, the field position was in Washington's favor most of the night. The Bucs' offense did not cross midfield in the first half.
The Bucs' defense did come up with a big play to start the second half, as rookie S Sean Baker intercepted Cousins on a deep pass down the middle of the field at Tampa Bay's 12. Baker returned the pick 17 yards to the 29, but unfortunately the Redskins' defense got the ball right back on the next play. Ratliff tried to hit Underwood deep down the left sideline, but CB Richard Crawford won a wrestling match for the ball and a pick of his own at the Washington 25.
Several plays later, Cousins went deep again, this time finding Banks for a gain of 47 yards down to the Bucs' 15, and Helu ran it in on the next play. Helu found a seam on a sweep to the right and just managed to clip the pylon with a dive to the goal line, pushing Washington's lead to 23-0 five minutes into the second half.
Ratliff then led the offense on their best drive to that point, starting with a 15-yard pass to Hughes and converting a third-and-eight with a sharp 11-yard pass to Underwood. Underwood caught another pass at the Washington 20 two plays later, but a false start and three incompletions forced the Bucs to try a 43-yard field goal with Forbath. He hit it with ease to put the Bucs on the board and reduce the Washington lead to 23-3.
Banks took an end-around down the left sideline for a 43-yard gain on the next drive, kick-starting a 74-yard drive that ended in Roy Helu's six-yard TD run.
The Bucs' next possession ended in a three-and-out, but Baker got the ball back for the offense with his second interception when Crompton tried to go deep to Banks. Baker intercepted the pass at the Bucs' 26 and returned it 26 yards to the Washington 48. Ratliff completed a 12-yarder to Underwood on third-and-10, then three plays later looked to the same receiver on third-and-nine from the Washington 35. Underwood ran a sharp in-and-out route but was initially ruled out of bounds on the catch at the Washington 12. Bucs Head Coach Greg Schiano threw his red flag to challenge the play and it was overturned, resulting in a first down. However, the scoring chance was nipped one play later when LB Bryan Kehl slid in front of TE Danny Noble in the middle of the field and intercepted Ratliff's pass, returning it 43 yards to the Washington 49.
Washington unsurprisingly kept the ball on the ground on the ensuing drive, sending FB Dorson Boyce up the middle on nine of the first 10 plays. On the 11th play, Banks got the handoff on fourth-and-five and put it on the ground, with Baker recovering for Tampa Bay at the Bucs' 27.
The Bucs also stuck to the ground game on the next drive, with Madu and Hughes getting the ball to midfield. However, Ratliff was hit on a fourth-down passing attempt, killing the drive, and the Redskins kneeled three times to drain the rest of the clock.