The Tampa Bay Buccaneers played the Miami Dolphins in the lead-up to every season during the past decade, and they're going to begin the 2010s in the exact same way. The Dolphins are Tampa Bay's most common preseason opponent by far, and the two teams will get together for their 25th summer meeting on Saturday night to open the 2010 campaign.
The main reason for this nearly annual preseason get-together is obvious: Teams schedule their own preseason games and there's no reason to work any more traveling into the middle of August than is necessary. A quick hop down to Miami makes an awful lot of sense for the Buccaneers.
It is just icing on the cake that this particular preseason series has proven to be hard-fought and tightly-contested, the perfect way to introduce young players to the pressures of the NFL. Of the 10 preseason games the Bucs and Dolphins played from 2000-09, eight were decided by four points or less and none were decided by more than nine points.
Last year, in the Buccaneers' first season under Head Coach Raheem Morris, the Dolphins came to Raymond James Stadium and left with a tight 10-6 win. The Bucs would like to return the favor on Saturday night, but regardless of the outcome Morris knows his team will get a valuable test.
"We particularly love playing the Dolphins, especially with the new leadership and direction they have down here now because you know they're going to play a physical brand of football," he said. "That's the type of football that you want to play and the type of football you want to be tested against. When you match up Coach [Tony] Sparano's team, you know you're going to get a physical and fast brand of football. This game provides us a chance to have different looks on defense and offense. We know we're going to get a physical running game from these guys and we'll be able to evaluate who can tackle, who can block, who can play."
The Buccaneers most recently played in Sun Life Stadium last November, during the 2009 regular season. It was quarterback Josh Freeman's second start for the Buccaneers and nearly his second straight win before the Dolphins kicked a last-minute field goal to take a 25-23 decision. Despite losing Ronnie Brown to a foot injury in that contest, the Dolphins rang up 199 yards on 25 carries, marking one of several times in 2009 that the Bucs' rush defense struggled.
Since then, the Bucs have drafted first-round defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and second-round defensive tackle Brian Price, and also seen significant improvement from young interior linemen Roy Miller and Dre Moore. The addition of McCoy, in particular, makes the Buccaneers hopeful that their defense will be more stout up the middle and Saturday's game - Brown's first since that injury last November - provides a nice opening test for that theory.
"He came in right away and started off very, very good," said Morris of McCoy. "I don't like to talk about a guy when he's in shorts, running around in no pads. Then he came and really impressed us in pads, but then I don't want to talk about a guy without game experience. But now we've got a chance tonight to see him go out there and play, get excited and respond to the game. He wants to play some snaps, he's excited about it. He's off the banquet tour and now it's time for us to play some football.
Price won't play in Saturday's game due to a mild hamstring injury that kept him out of several days of training camp this past week. He has been impressive when on the field, however, and Morris hopes to have him back and playing alongside McCoy in the preseason soon. For his part, McCoy has already grabbed a spot in the starting lineup, which would seem to put him in line for just a brief cameo tonight. Starters generally play only sparingly in the preseason opener - Morris estimated 12-15 snaps for his starting groups on Saturday - but McCoy might be an exception, since he's both a newcomer and a starter.
"We have a bunch of young guys, so at times it could be more for some guys than you would see in a normal year," said Morris. "That's okay because these guys like playing. We've had a tough, physical football camp and they're used to it. I have a feeling some of those guys want to stay in there and get some more reps. A guy like McCoy, for instance, he may go out there with the starters, but he may want to go back and I may want to see him in a two-minute live situation. I may keep him warm on the sideline so we can put him back in the game in order to get a really good evaluation of him. We want to get these guys used to an NFL game because it's a different deal and I'd like my young guys to get a feel for it."
The same is true in the receiving corps, where an even bigger group of young players is fighting for significant roles. That includes another 2010 draft pick who has already cracked the starting 11, Mike Williams. While Williams has been outstanding on the practice field almost without exception since the days after the draft, it seems like almost every other player in that crew has picked a moment or two to shine as well.
Players like Sammie Stroughter, Arrelious Benn and Reggie Brown have pushed each other, but on Saturday they'll finally get a hostile opponent to compete against. The Dolphins have traditionally been strong in the secondary, especially at cornerback, and that's no different this year with such opponents as Vontae Davis and Sean Jones ready to line up against the Bucs' receivers. It could be just what the Buccaneers need to begin creating some separation between the WR candidates.
"That receiving corps, period, has had a very competitive nature led by, really, Sammie Stroughter," said Morris. "He's coming off a good season for us last year, looking to make big strides and crack that starting lineup at maybe Z. He's fighting against a guy like Arrelious Benn or Michael Clayton or Reggie Brown, who was brought in here via trade. Those guys have provided a lot of competition for each other and I'm excited to see them all play.
"Maurice Stovall was very productive for us last year and really carved out a niche with Josh Freeman. There are some other young men in there to be excited about that people will see tonight, like Preston Parker. To be excited about a receiving corps with this many people a part of it...I've said before that I'm not taking away from some of the receivers in the past around here and their individual accomplishments - the Joey Galloways and Antonio Bryants - but right now the package that we have [is strong]. It looks like any one of those guys could be a breakout player."
Morris knows his young team will be motivated by battles such as that, and by the presence of a different jersey and simply by the chance to finally prove themselves under the NFL lights.
"I can feel their sense of urgency," said Morris of his players. "I can feel their hunger. All these guys are coming out here ready to play and they've been the same way through our whole training camp. I've seen them come together, trying to become more consistent and play smarter, and I've seen them play faster. Tonight is going to be a great night. It's going to be a night where we get a chance to see some of the new talent that we've acquired. We'll get a chance to see how physical and talented we can be."
In addition to Price, the Buccaneers will also not have cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis, running back Clifton Smith, tight end Kellen Winslow or safety De'von Hall, all of whom stayed back in Tampa. With Talib out, Elbert Mack will draw the start at left cornerback, while Jerramy Stevens will replace Winslow at tight end on offense.
The Buccaneers and Dolphins kick off at 7:00 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the game at halftime and a detailed game story after the final whistle.