Jameis Winston played his first regular-season NFL game without one of the most important weapons in his arsenal, as second-year wide receiver Mike Evans was sidelined by a hamstring injury. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers obviously hope their last two first-round draft picks will get to work together this coming Sunday in New Orleans. The good news: They were able to do so on Wednesday.
Evans took a step forward in his return from that injury, suffered in the latter half of the preseason, by joining the team in its first practice of Week Two, albeit in a limited fashion. During the portion of practice that is open to the media, Evans ran through all the drills with no apparent discomfort.
In the Buccaneers' season-opening loss to Tennessee, Winston most frequently connected with another rising second-year target, tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins, who caught five passes for 110 yards and both of Tampa Bay's touchdowns. Winston's most common target was veteran wide receiver Vincent Jackson, but the 11 passes thrown his way only resulted in four catches for 51 yards (and two potential touchdowns erased by a heel on the back line and a penalty, respectively). Louis Murphy started in Evans' absence and did not have a catch among just three targets, although Murphy was very productive in a similar situation with Evans last year.
Coincidentally, the one contest that Evans missed in its entirety last year was a Week Five trip to New Orleans, a game in which the Saints needed overtime to pull out a 37-31 victory. If the Buccaneers end up in another down-to-the-wire affair this Sunday, the presence of Evans could make a significant difference. How the young receiver's leg responds to his return to action over the next two days of practice will likely determine his availability for Sunday.
Pictures from the Bucs' practice on Wednesday, September 16th at One Buccaneer Place in Tampa.
Cornerback Mike Jenkins also missed the opener with a hamstring strain – in his case suffered in practice last Thursday – but it was apparently a mild one, as he was back in practice on a limited basis, too. Linebacker Bruce Carter played against the Titans and returned to action after initially leaving with a ribs injury, but he was limited on Wednesday. Smith seemed optimistic about Carter's status for the rest of the week.
"Always good to get some of the players back out there – Bruce Carter finished the game, but he practiced on a limited basis today, was able to do most of the work," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "To get Mike Evans back, to do more [is good] and Mike Jenkins' hamstring is getting better. So, three guys that are nursing injuries that were able to do a little bit."
Smith was also optimistic that linebacker Danny Lansanah, who had an interception return for a touchdown in that aforementioned 2014 shootout in the Superdome. Lansanah did not practice on Wednesday due to an ankle injury suffered against the Titans. Defensive end T.J. Fatinikun (shoulder) and safety Major Wright (abdomen) were also held out to start the week of practice.
- The Buccaneers face a familiar opponent on Sunday, but for some of their young players, it will be in an unfamiliar environment. Rookie tackle Donovan Smith, for instance, says that he has never before played a game in a domed stadium.
The issue, of course, is the noise. When things are going well for the Saints, the Superdome crowd can be one of the loudest in the NFL. Opposing offenses can run into trouble with their communication and timing, especially on audibles and when snapping the ball. With the game in New Orleans followed by a Week Three trip to Houston and Reliant Stadium, the Buccaneers will be spending a lot of time in the next two weeks preparing to operate within a deafening din.
"Next two weeks we are playing at two of the loudest places at the NFL – the Superdome and then going to Houston the following week," said Offensive Coordinator Dirk Koetter. "You practice that stuff during training camp. That's [the] number one thing on our board today of things we must do to be successful in this game is to handle the noise. Jameis has played in big games in big stadiums before, so he's experienced that. The first two, right out the gate, being in dome stadiums, that is going to be a challenge and something we'll be addressing this week."
If the success of an offensive line is as much about playing as a unit and building chemistry as is often suggested, then a howling and hostile dome crowd is the best test of how the Buccaneers have progressed in that regard. Smith, the left tackle, is one of two rookie starters on that front five, along with right guard Ali Marpet, and right tackle Gosder Cherilus is also relatively new to the team. Those three plus center Evan Smith and left guard Logan Mankins need to be on the same page heading into the Superdome Sunday.
"It's just being able to trust my center and my quarterback, and just going on the snap count," said Donovan Smith. "That's key number one."
Of course, as much as the Superdome deserves its reputation for volume, it's worth noting that the Saints have lost five straight home games, dating back to last season. It's obvious that visiting teams can overcome that noise-induced disadvantage on offense.
"I wouldn't say impossible," said Lovie Smith. "We know every year we're going to play in a few domed stadiums. We played there last year and we had some success. Teams have had some success [there]. It's not like that's a 'gimme,' that you play in a dome and you can't get any communication. We work on the silent count and being able to handle situations like this. We feel like we're going to be okay. It is tough duty, but we'll be able to handle it."
- The Buccaneers are doing their best to move on from their tough season opener and ensure that it doesn't define their season. By Wednesday, that means focusing on the Saints and no longer hashing over either the game's many disappointments or its few bright spots. So we won't refer to the performance of Tampa Bay's special teams as a 'bright spot;' rather, it was something on which to build.
Punter Jacob Schum was solid in his regular-season NFL debut, averaging 47.0 gross yards and an excellent 43.5 net yards per kick. Rookie kicker Kyle Brindza booted all three of his kickoffs well into the end zone, and when Bishop Sankey chose to run the first one out, the coverage units stopped him at the Tennessee 11. Brindza also made both of his extra point attempts, though he did not get to tray a field goal.
Perhaps most encouraging to the Bucs' coaching staff was the work of Bobby Rainey (and his blockers) in the return game. The Buccaneers used a sixth-round pick on Kaelin Clay in search of a potential spark in the return game and also spent part of the summer auditioning the likes of Kenny Bell, Rannell Hall and Adam Humphries as returners. Once the season started, however, and only Humphries from among that group was on the roster, the job went to Rainey, who was the team's primary returner at the end of last year.
Rainey ran three kickoffs back for an excellent average of 27.7 yards, giving the Buccaneers an acceptable average kickoff drive start of the 23.0-yard line. (Tennessee's, by comparison, was the 17.0-yard line.) Rainey also recorded one 19-yard punt return, and it was actually a 24-yarder before a penalty wiped out the end of the play.
"I'm going to say [he was] one of the bright spots," said Lovie Smith of Rainey's performance. "We've been trying to get our punt return game – just our return game in general – going and Bobby did a good job. It's a shame we had one of those returns called back, but Bobby can catch the ball, he can make you miss in the open field and he's excited about playing on the turf this week and getting some more from our special teams. Our special teams, for the most part, did a decent job playing throughout the day."