Ryan Griffin made his first NFL start in the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2018 preseason finale on Thursday night and in the process confirmed that he is ready to start the regular season as the team's number-two quarterback.
The Buccaneers dropped their final warm-up affair, 25-10, to the Jaguars at Raymond James Stadium in a game played almost exclusively by both team's deep reserves. Tampa Bay dropped to 2-2 on the preseason but got encouraging outings from the likes of Griffin, rookie running back Shaun Wilson and wide receivers Bobo Wilson, Bernard Reedy and Justin Watson.
Griffin played the entire first half and built on his strong 2018 preseason, completing 17 of 27 passes for 151 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions. The fifth-year veteran played in all four preseason games and finished with 518 yards on 68.0% passing, a 4-0 touchdown-interception ratio and a 105.3 passer rating. Though his playing time primarily came with and against reserves, Griffin showed poise and accuracy throughout August, which is encouraging for the Bucs as they will ask him to be Ryan Fitzpatrick's primary backup during Jameis Winston's three-game suspension.
"Really good timing and crisp execution," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter of Griffin's final preseason outing. "He's running the show well and he looked really confident. If something happens and we need him, as a backup he'll be ready to go."
In the absence of such Buc stalwarts as Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, Griffin targeted Reedy, Watson and the two Wilsons on a combined 17 of his 27 aerials. Reedy finished with five catches for 56 yards and Bobo Wilson added four grabs for 34 yards plus a 21-yard end around. Wilson also handled most of the Bucs' return duties on the night, highlighted by a 36-yard kickoff return in the third quarter. Shaun Wilson, in a battle for the last running back spot, saw his most extensive preseason action on offense and contributed 68 yards from scrimmage, including 44 yards on seven carries. The Bucs' first-half offense was good for 184 yards and 17 first downs under Griffin's guidance.
"They all have different strengths," said Griffin of the players battling for the final spots on offense. "Reedy is really quick, you want to try and get him in space so he can make people miss. Freddie [Martino] is really good at the top of routes getting open. Then, J-Wat is a big, strong, physical guy. You can see that with his routes, getting people off of him against man [defense]. So, whenever you get a play, you try to figure out how to best utilize each person's strengths based on coverage. They've all stepped up."
Griffin's two-yard touchdown pass to Watson in the second quarter gave the Buccaneers a 10-3 halftime lead, as veteran kicker Chandler Catanzaro also made a 31-yard field goal at the end of a lengthy Griffin-led drive. The Jaguars countered with a dominant second half, scoring 22 unanswered points behind the passing of backup QB Tanner Lee and a 26-yard fumble-return touchdown by LB Carroll Phillips.
Rookie Austin Allen came in to lead the Bucs' offense in the second half but had little success moving the team while facing constant pressure. Allen completed four of his 10 passes for 64 yards and was picked off once while absorbing three sacks.
The Buccaneers held out 41 of the 91 players on their roster, and while a handful were sidelined by injury, most were simply rested as they had nothing left to prove. That included all 22 players in the team's expected Week One starting lineup as well as such regulars as Adam Humphries, Chris Godwin, William Gholston and Keith Tandy. The team's trio of rookie defensive backs – Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead – also sat out, indicating their obvious importance to the team's regular-season plans.
All those absences led to a significant amount of playing time for such young roster hopefuls as wide receiver Justin Watson and linebacker Jack Cichy, the Buccaneers' fifth and sixth-round draft picks in 2018, respectively. Watson caught a three-yard touchdown pass from Griffin in the second quarter to give the Buccaneers a 7-3 lead and Cichy sacked QB Tanner Lee shortly before halftime to kill Jacksonville's last first-half scoring chance.
The low stakes of the game were reflected not only in those starting lineups but in a number of coaching decisions on the night. The two teams chose to go for it on a combined five fourth downs, converting on three of them. The Jaguars went for two on each of their first two second-half touchdowns, presumably to reduce the chances of the game going into overtime.
The Buccaneers got the ball to midfield on the game's opening drive on the strength of Griffin's sideline completions to Bernard Reedy and Bobo Wilson. However, CB Quenton Meeks nearly picked off a third-down pass and the Bucs had to punt, with Jacksonville taking over at its own 25. The Jaguars also took their first possession to midfield but a Nathan Bazata sack helped force a punt.
The Bucs had to start at their own eight after the punt and lost five yards right away when Dante Fowler shot through the line on a run blitz and got to Jones as soon as he took the handoff. That doomed Tampa Bay's second drive immediately but a good punt by Bryan Anger, great coverage ending in Godwin Igwebuike's tackle of Shane Wynn and a Jacksonville penalty flipped the field. Jacksonville started its second drive at its own 36.
This possession ended in points, as RB Brandon Wilds ran three times for 17 yards and QB Cody Kessler completed a 12-yard pass to WR DeAndre Smelter to set up Josh Lambo's 51-yard field goal. However, the Bucs responded with an impressive 14-play, 83-yard touchdown march led by Griffin, who completed seven of eight passes on the drive for 54 yards. Wilson caught two of those passes and also had a 21-yard gain on an end-around, and Alan Cross's three-yard catch on fourth-and-one set up Griffin's two-yard TD pass to Watson.
After a quick three-and-out forced by the Bucs' defense, Griffin led a second extended scoring drive, this one covering 66 yards on 11 plays and ending in Catanzaro's 31-yard field goal. TE Antony Auclair started it with a 12-yard catch after bouncing off a tackle and turning it upfield, and Dare Ogunbowale converted a third-and-one near midfield with a three-yard catch. Reedy added a 12-yard catch and the personal foul call on LB Carroll Phillips tacked on 15 more to the Jaguars' 27. Shaun Wilson got 13 more on a first-down catch but the drive stalled in the red zone.
The Jaguars got across midfield on their next drive but a sack by Cichy on a play that started with a bobbled snap forced a punt in the final minute of the first half. Griffin got the Bucs in position for a Hail Mary attempt to end the half but it was broken up in the end zone.
Jacksonville got the ball first to start the second and immediately marched 75 yards on 12 plays to pull within one point on the scoreboard. The drive started fast with a 17-yard run by Wilds and Lee's 26-yard pass down the left sideline to WR Montay Crockett, and the Jaguars chose to go for it when facing a fourth-and-three at the Bucs' 11. After converting that with a six-yard pass to Crockett, Lee handed off to Tim Cook for a three-yard touchdown on third-and-goal. The Jaguars elected to go for two – perhaps thinking about the threat of a preseason tie in a 10-10 game – and failed.
Jacksonville took the lead back moments later on the game's biggest defensive play. On his first pass attempt of the game, Allen was hit from behind by blitzing LB Blair Brown, causing a fumble that was picked up and returned 26 yards by Phillips for a touchdown. Jacksonville once again went for two and failed, leaving the score at 15-10 with eight minutes to play in the third quarter.
The Buccaneers took the ensuing drive across midfield but chose to go for it on fourth-and-four from the Jaguars' 44 and failed when Allen's pass to Bobo Wilson was broken up. The Jags used the short field to tack on a third straight touchdown, this one on a fourth-and-goal one-yard run by Cook. The score was set up by Lee's 43-yard pass down the right sideline to Crockett, who was originally credited with a touchdown before the play was reviewed.
Bobo Wilson found the sideline for a good return on the ensuing kickoff and a personal foul on punter Logan Cooke tacked on 15 yards to the Bucs' 49 as the third quarter was drawing to a close. However, the Bucs failed on another fourth-down try around midfield and the Jaguars used that field position to mount a short drive ending in Lambo's 40-yard field goal.
The Bucs got into Jacksonville territory on the next drive when Allen hit rookie WR Ervin Philips on a 28-yard pass. However, the scoring opportunity ended abruptly when CB Dee Delaney intercepted Allen at the 12-yard line.