The Buccaneers open their home preseason schedule on Friday night as they take on the Miami Dolphins inside Raymond James Stadium. It'll be the first dose of cannon fire we get in 2019 and if the last game against Pittsburgh is any indication, there's about to be a lot of it. The Bucs narrowly missed a comeback victory at Heinz Field but the final score was 30-28, with the Bucs scoring four touchdowns and kicking a field goal.
Now, young players and rookies get to play in front of the home crowd for the very first time and veterans get to return after an eight-month absence. They've been practicing all week against the Miami Dolphins during joint practices at AdventHealth Training Center. Now, they get a chance to go against the in-state rivals in game action at home.
Here are a few things to watch for on Friday night:
-Part of the reason the Buccaneers found themselves down in a 14-point hole during last Friday's game in Pittsburgh was the amount of penalties on both sides of the ball. Those seem to be more of a symptom of learning than anything else, but Head Coach Bruce Arians made it very clear during this week of practices that it won't be tolerated.
"Better execution out of our young players," Arians said of what he was looking for during the second preseason game. "Elimination of penalties – we had 16 penalties [vs. Pittsburgh], 14 accepted last week, and we've had some more in these practices. I keep telling them, 'You get penalties, you're not making the team.' I want to see that eliminated, the mental errors, I just want to see them play sharper. I'd like the starters to play probably as much as last week and look as good, hopefully."
It's safe to say that Bucs players will attempt to be on their best behavior, especially in front of the home crowd. Look for that penalty count to be much lower than the aforementioned 16 penalties.
-Bucs starters, like the first preseason game, aren't likely to play much of the game. Given that the team held two joint practices with the Miami Dolphins ahead of Friday's contest, the first-teamers got more than their fair share of reps against a new team. As a result, Coach Arians said this week they probably won't play much more than they did last week, which was exactly one series for the first-unit offense and no more than 10-15 plays on defense.
Younger players and reserves are likely to carry the bulk of the load and therefore, be given the biggest opportunity to stand out. Coach Arians called out one such player last week, saying he was looking for him to make a big play in his first game action as a pro, except it never came. That player was cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, who the team took in the second round out of Central Michigan in this past draft. Murphy-Bunting has been doing well in practice and gotten a good look at the nickel cornerback position, but his failure to stand out didn't sit well with Arians this past wekk.
"Yeah, I was a little bit surprised by him because he was playing so fast in all those practices and really showing up," Arians said. "I think it was just the lights, Heinz Field, and all those things that go with it. He has bounced back really, really well in these practices."
Now that Murphy-Bunting has one game under his belt and knows a little bit more of what to expect, I'd look for him to have a bounce-back game to show his coach he can handle himself at the NFL level.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers joint Training Camp practice at the AdventHealth Training Center with the Miami Dolphins.
-Another player that will be looking to stand out is rookie undrafted free agent cornerback Mazzi Wilkins. Unlike Murphy-Bunting, Wilkins popped up on the radar on Friday in Pittsburgh. He forced the defense's only takeaway as he knocked the ball out of Steelers tight end Kevin Rader's hands towards the end of the game to set up a potential game-tying drive by the Bucs. Wilkins has been playing well in practice, too, but he sits behind two draft picks in Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Deal, along with two 'veterans' in Vernon Hargreaves and Carlton Davis at the cornerback position. Veteran cornerback Ryan Smith will have to sit out for the first four games of the regular season, potentially opening a door for Wilkins if he performs well.
"It's really tough," Coach Arians said of Wilkins' chances of making the final 53-man roster on Tuesday. "Keep playing like you're playing, then you're going to have a chance. The one thing about him – he plays full tilt every time he's out there. He's playing smart right now. He did get a couple of penalties today, that's the stuff that'll kill us, especially on third down. I love his aggressiveness, but let go of his shirt. Things like that – he's a good young aggressive player. He's going to have a good future."
Miami will present another opportunity for Wilkins to prove his case and prove he can play smart, effective football.
-On the other side of the ball, wide receiver Spencer Schnell put on a clinic for young receiver hopefuls during the last nine minutes of Friday's game. All seven of Schnell's catches (and his 119 subsequent yards) came in that span as he and quarterback Ryan Griffin hit a hot streak. Schnell was largely responsible for helping continue the drive that could have potentially tied the game for the Buccaneers.
Schnell sits in one of the deepest rooms Tampa Bay has, with receivers like Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson ahead of him. Sixth-round draft pick Scotty Miller is currently sidelined and, in his absence, Schnell has taken on the load – even taking on the kick return work.
"Yeah, if he gets a hundred yards in the fourth quarter again, he's going to open a lot of eyes," Coach Arians said of Schnell. "He just keeps getting open. He's more of a slot [receiver] – get him out there in one on ones outside, that's not his forte – but in the slot, he's a heck of a football player."
Schnell is a bit undersized for an NFL receiver, listed at 5-8, 178 pounds. Especially for a slot receiver, a position that can take a beating and is asked to block on occasion, that can work against him. But Schnell made it work last Friday and he'll look toward the game against Miami to prove that last week wasn't a fluke. If he does that, and does well in the return game to prove his worth on special teams, there could be a place on the roster for the Illinois State product.
The countdown to season kickoff is on! The Bucs are kicking off the NFL's 100th season with a FREE Tim McGraw pregame concert for all fans with a ticket to the home opener on Sept. 8! Get your tickets today.