The Buccaneers head out to Minnesota to take on the Vikings in their first game of the 2015 preseason.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin their annual four-game preseason progression on Saturday night in Minnesota, but this year they'll be taking a little different approach at the beginning.
That's a function of selecting a quarterback with the first pick in the draft and then naming him the starter on the opening day of training camp. The quarterback in question is Jameis Winston, and to get him ready for the regular-season opener against Tennessee in September the Buccaneers are likely to give him an extended look in the first warm-up game.
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A typical preseason approach for most NFL teams is to play the starters for a series or two in Week One, into the second quarter in Week Two, into the second half in Week Three and then not all in the finale. With the Bucs breaking in Winston, two rookie offensive linemen and a number of young pass-catchers, the first-team offense should stick around a little longer than usual in Week One, with perhaps a couple earlier individual substitutions here and there.
"We aim towards that quarter mark [with] most of our players," said Head Coach Lovie Smith before the game. "Some of our players that we know, the Gerald McCoys and Lavonte Davids, it won't be much more than that with them, Logan Mankins. But some of our young players, we want them to play. Talking Jameis Winston and all our young players, we're going to play them longer than we normally would. We'll see how the game goes to see exactly how much, and take it from there."
You won't hear complaints from Buccaneer players or fans over that approach. Winston is eager to play and everyone else is looking forward to see how he does in his NFL game debut. Smith and his coaching staff have worked to get the rookie passer ready for that debut by introducing him to difficult situations early in camp. Tampa Bay's defense has thrown a wide variety of blitzes and other looks at Winston in various practices to see how he would handle them.
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"We want to bring our defense along and that was the main reason why we did it, but it helped Jameis also," said Smith. "He hasn't played an NFL game so we wanted him to see the speed of it a little more, put him under pressure a little bit earlier than maybe most folks would. But that's what he does well. He's handled all that. There's been great competition throughout every practice we've had and we feel like he's ready to take that next step."
Winston may not be ready for the Tennessee opener yet, but the team believes he's ready to take the next step in his first preseason game. So far, he's hit every goal the team has set up for him.
"We set the bar early on, and once you have your first practice we want to see improvement, daily improvement in all areas," said Smith. "Decision-making, grasp of the offense, and just seeing him compete from day to day, and that's what we've seen. We like what he's done off the field, moving into the role, being a leader in the huddle, barking out plays, all of that. And in practice, he's had some days that he needed to make some improvement the following day. He did that, so he's done everything you need a player to do before he plays his first game."
The aforementioned rookie linemen who may very well be starting in front of Winston on opening day are twin second-round picks Donovan Smith and Ali Marpet. Like Winston, they've endured a baptism by fire, particularly when they've been taking first-team reps and matching up against the likes of Gerald McCoy and Jacquies Smith. Tonight's game, with neither team holding back, should be a new kind of test, especially when first-team pass-rushers like Everson Griffen and Sharrif Floyd are still on the field.
"There's been great work between our defensive and offensive lines," said Lovie Smith of the team's training camp work. "Donovan Smith, playing left tackle, it's hard transitioning into the league when you have the best pass rusher each week. But we've seen flashes with him. We're not ready for Tennessee yet but of course that's part of the process you go through. We have Ali Marpet, too, who we've seen more than flashes from him. He's practicing against a great player every day in Gerald McCoy, so you have to be ready each day. We really feel like he's met the challenge."
Jacquies Smith, a second-year player who had a surprise 6.5-sack breakout last fall, is actually in his first preseason with the Buccaneers. Linebacker Kwon Alexander, a fourth-round pick in the most recent draft, will be getting his first taste of NFL action. The Buccaneers are also integrating such 2015 veteran additions as Henry Melton, George Johnson, D.J. Swearinger and Bruce Carter, so there is plenty new to see on the defensive side of the ball, too. Mainly, they just want to see the players performing against somebody other than their own teammates.
"Just to have a chance to go against someone else," said Lovie Smith. "In training camp, you're not tackling live every day, so you think you know a lot about players until you actually see them finish plays. And then for our quarterbacks and our skill guys to be hit – all those things you have to go through to get ready for the opening game, so we're excited about playing."
The Buccaneers take on the Vikings in Week One of the 2015 preseason on Saturday night, with kickoff scheduled for 8:00 p.m. ET. The game will be played at TCF Bank Stadium on the University of Minnesota campus. The game will be broadcast in the Bay area on television by WFLA News Channel 8 and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.