Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans will get their first up-close look at LB Mason Foster in action on Thursday night. Foster, however, will not be getting his first taste of the National Football League.
Foster's introduction to the NFL at full speed came six days earlier, in the Buccaneers' preseason opener at Kansas City. Unlike many, many rookies around the league, Foster was on the field for the first play of the game, as he is currently the favorite to fill the Buccaneers' opening at middle linebacker. The former University of Washington star didn't have an opportunity to ease into the pros with 20 or 30 snaps against fellow newcomers; instead, he faced some of the best the Chiefs had to offer.
And he performed well, recovering a fumble that led to the Buccaneers' first touchdown and later turning in an eye-opening third-down stop on scrambling Chiefs QB Tyler Palko. Foster made the most of his first NFL start; now he needs to exploit the rest of the preseason for what it is for: Getting better every time out.
"To put it in simple terms, you'd have to say he got a passing grade on his first test," said Buccaneers Head Coach Raheem Morris of his precocious rookie 'backer. "He's going to get better and better as he goes out, each opportunity. Tonight, we look forward to him going out and being as productive and doing some of the things we require for our 'Mike' linebacker to do. I look forward to watching him."
Much of the same sentiment can be applied to the 2011 Buccaneers as a whole. It was difficult to predict how any of the league's 32 teams would perform after the extended offseason work stoppage and a mere two weeks of collective team work. But Tampa Bay certainly passed its first test in a 25-0 blanking of the Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Now they return home to take on another test: the always challenging New England Patriots, who are coming off an impressive preseason debut of their own.
"I was very pleased with the guys' effort, how they played and when they played," said Morris of the win in K.C. "The guys stayed on the whole game, they were all locked in, whether they played or not, and whether they played a few snaps or not. It was a lot of fun seeing those guys do that last week and hopefully we can do the same thing tonight."
The Patriots opened their preseason slate with a 47-12 thrashing of the Jacksonville Jaguars, and that was without starting QB Tom Brady taking a single snap. New England had some impressive rookie performances of their own, particularly from QB Ryan Mallett and RB Stevan Ridley, indicating that the game will likely remain competitive long after both team's starters have exited. Morris is looking forward to that part of the game, but he's also hoping to get an extended test against the Patriots' front-line players.
"Obviously, whether Tom plays or not, they're going to come out and execute their plan like they did last week," said the Bucs' coach. "They've got great backups, they're a great organization. And if Tom does play you've got to be ready for one of the premier quarterbacks in this league and what he's able to do. He's always going to be sharp, he's always going to be consistent. He's going to go out there and try to move his offense like he always does. Their defensive guys, hopefully they'll get out there and play against us so we can play against some really good competition. Not that their number twos aren't really good competition, but you want to play against the best when you're put in this situation. We want their best."
The Bucs hope to test the Patriots right back with an outing even better than the one they put together at Arrowhead Stadium. Foster, hopefully, will play even better, and such Week One standouts as QB Josh Johnson and WR Dezmon Briscoe will try to further cement their spots in the Buccaneers' regular-season designs.
"Josh Johnson is going to continue to be a major part of our game plan, helping us win, because he's so explosive," said Morris. "He showed some explosiveness last week and we'll get him out there again and let him quarterback and run our offense. I feel really good about him going in and executing our game plan. He's just a special young man."
Both Johnson and starter Josh Freeman looked frequently to Briscoe, who was the game's leading receiver in Week One and is working hard to carve out a significant role in the offense in the regular season.
"Briscoe's special," said Morris. "He's a guy that's going to make the most of his opportunity, take advantage of it. He did it last week. He'll get more opportunities tonight and we look forward to him going out there and being special and doing some of the things he does really well, running routes and catching the ball, fending off defenders. He's a big guy and he's fun to watch."
A handful of Buccaneer players will have to wait another week before taking advantage of any preseason opportunities. Both Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis are working through hamstring injuries, and though neither one is serious the coaching staff is, as usual, taking the cautious approach during the preseason. Neither will play against the Patriots. The Buccaneers will also be without starting defensive tackle Roy Miller, who took a hit on his knee at the beginning of last week's game. Morris said the injury is essentially a contusion and it will not be an issue for long. WR Arrelious Benn (knee), S Ahmad Black (ankle), DT Brian Price (hamstring) and TE Luke Stocker (hip) will also not play.
Most of the Buccaneers' expected starters will open the game, however. Morris plans to follow a rotation much like to the one the team employed in Kansas City.
"We're going to be very similar to last week," he said. "We want to play about 20 or so plays with those first units, offense and defense. It could be more or less, depending on what's happening in the game and how the game is set up, because you've got to get those younger guys, see those guys play, assess those guys in order to make your football team. We'll get those guys out there for about 20 or so snaps and hopefully get them off the field with the success they had last week. That would be great."
The Bucs and Patriots kick off at 7:30 p.m. ET. Buccaneers.com will post an update of the first-half action during halftime and a detailed game report after the final whistle. In addition, Gene Deckerhoff and Dave Moore of the Buccaneers Radio Network will provide a wrap-up of the action on video after the game.