After Wednesday’s practice, Head Coach Bruce Arians didn’t mince words when he spoke about the opportunity the team’s first preseason game against the Pittsburgh Steelers brings for rookies and players ‘on the bubble.’
"Young players – they're going to play the majority of the game, 80 percent of it,” Arians said. “One or two of them are either going to get exposed or have good exposure, and that's really what this is all about. That's what we talked to them about it. What they're putting on tape is not just for us – 31 other teams are going to look at it. So, you want to put the best thing you have on tape to be evaluated."
It will be the first game action Tampa Bay will see in 2019 as they travel to Heinz Field and the first opportunity for many players to show what they can do against a team not wearing red and white.
The Buccaneers also released their first depth chart ahead of Friday’s game and it’s filled with a few tidbits of information that should make for some interesting position battles to keep an eye on as you’re watching the game (now available via live stream!).
Check out a few things to watch for on Friday night:
-The offensive line is a unit that has garnered a lot of questions due to the uncertainty at the right guard position this preseason. According to the depth chart, second-year player Alex Cappa is listed as the starter with veteran Earl Watford, who the team signed in free agency this past offseason, as second-team. Offensive lineman Mike Liedtke, who was listed as the backup to left guard Ali Marpet, went down with a shoulder injury that will keep him out for the 2019 season. Truthfully, it affects the depth all along the line as Liedtke could provide a fill-in at every position. Look for how Cappa fares at right guard and how the line ends up shuffling as more and more backup players get their shot against Pittsburgh.
-Coach Arians said on Wednesday that running back Peyton Barber, who’s listed as the Bucs’ starting running back, won’t play with the twos. It will be second-year player Ronald Jones that will instead go with the backups, though he could get some situational reps with the starters. Jones has looked good in camp, even during live-tackle periods. He looks to have improved in his pass-catching abilities and has proved elusive once he has the ball, evading tackles and utilizing his speed to get breaks down the sideline, especially. Following a disappointing rookie season, you have to think RoJo will be looking to bounce back as soon as possible and the game against Pittsburgh, though preseason, allows him his first opportunity to do so. It will also be a chance for second-year Buccaneer Dare Ogunbowale to show how far he's come in his pass-catching and how physical he can be after putting on weight this offseason.
-The team selected linebacker Devin White with their first pick at fifth overall in the 2019 NFL Draft. White has looked to be as advertised thus far in camp and this will be his first opportunity to take the field against NFL talent. He’s listed as one of two starting inside linebackers and has been making the calls on the field for the defense in practice. He probably won’t play a ton as his starting spot is pretty secure, but it will be good to see him orchestrating the defense in a game situation.
-In what is probably the youngest unit on the team, the secondary has been showing out in practice, too. Three of the Bucs’ seven draft picks this year were defensive backs and this will be their first chance under the NFL lights. Safety Mike Edwards is the only one of the three that is currently listed in a starting spot but he’s been limited in practice the past couple of days. The coaches may find it more suitable to keep him out and cornerback Jamel Dean didn’t make the trip as he’s working through his own injury. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting should see significant playing time, though. He’ll mostly join other young players like cornerbacks M.J. Stewart, Mazzi Wilkins and De’Vante Harris in the game so we’ll get an idea of the depth at cornerback in the process.
-Not to be forgotten, special teams will be a big focal point for the coaches. Pay attention to who ends up returning kicks and who’s in on the punt and kick coverages. Those are the guys fighting for roster spots and can gain the most with good special teams play. Currently, wide receiver Bobo Wilson is listed as the starting kick returner. He can help himself in a very deep wide receiver room by being the trusted return man.
-Speaking of the wideouts, that position group again seems to be one of the deepest for the Buccaneers. Second-year receiver Justin Watson, a Pittsburgh-native who will be playing in front of a plethora of family members along with his entire high school football team, will look to show that he has taken the step forward that his coaches and fellow receivers says he has.
There are also quite a few rookies looking to stand out. Veteran wide receiver Mike Evans had this to say about the young pass catchers when asked who was standing out to him personally:
“I mean, all of them,” Evans said. “I can’t really point out one guy. Maybe Scotty [Miller], his speed – I didn’t know he is that fast. He’s really, really fast. But all of them have been making really good plays. I’m excited to see what they’re going to do in these preseason games. We’re a pretty tight-knit group. I like the rookies a lot. They’re just working, putting in work and making plays and doing what Coach [Arians] asks them.”
Miller is nursing an injury and didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh, but guys like Anthony Johnson, Bryant Mitchell, Matthew Eaton, Spencer Schnell and Cortrelle Simpson, along with Watson and the aforementioned Wilson, will all be looking to make their mark this game.
-Then of course, there's the kicking game. After rookie Matt Gay hit a 65-yarder in practice on Wednesday in the indoor facility and we've seen veteran Cairo Santos hit from 61 yards himself, it will be interesting to see how the pair do in unfamiliar territory, though Santos has played at Heinz Field twice before as a member of the Kansas City Chiefs. Coach Arians said that though the two have been switching off kicking duties each day of practice, he will use both in this first preseason game.