In what was likely their final tune-up before the September 13 opener, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' starters showed they still had some work to do to get ready for the regular season.
Tampa Bay recovered well after a very slow start, particularly on defense, but still trailed the Cleveland Browns, 17-7, at halftime on Saturday night en route to a 31-7 defeat. The Browns scored the game's first 17 points on a punt return touchdown, an 80-yard touchdown drive and a field goal set up by an interception, and the Buccaneers were unable to overcome those early issues.
Photos from the Buccaneers' preseason game against the Browns at Raymond James Stadium.
"We didn't have a fast start," said Head Coach Lovie Smith. "The turnover didn't help us any at all. You can't give up a punt return like that. We started playing better football by the end of the half."
Both teams played their starters into the third quarter, as is common in the third week of the preseason, and Tampa Bay actually had the total-yardage edge at halftime, 119-109. After giving up that first long drive, the Bucs' defense allowed four or fewer plays on the other five drives of the half and just one first down. Rookie LB Kwon Alexander continued to impress, racking up five tackles, two tackles for loss and a crushing two-yard sack of McCown. The Bucs' defense couldn't keep up its turnover rush of the previous week but did break up three passes and record six tackles for loss.
"Yeah, we were happy with it, but right now on the defensive side of the ball, we have to take the ball away," said Smith.
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers' offense couldn't take advantage, with a long drive of 45 yards in the first half, that one resulting in Doug Martin's 19-yard touchdown run. Martin had another strong outing with 44 yards on nine carries but rookie QB Jameis Winston wasn't as sharp as in the Bucs' Monday night win over Cincinnati, completing six of 15 passes for 90 yards, no touchdowns and the one pick. Winston didn't have much of a chance to get into a rhythm, however, as the Bucs' young offensive line struggled to handle the pressure from Cleveland's 3-4 defensive front. The Browns sacked Winston three times in the first half and added a fourth in a single, brief second-half drive.
SOCIAL REWIND: BUCCANEERS VS. BROWNS
If the Bucs gained any momentum in the second quarter, it evaporated after halftime with a second slow start. The Bucs' defense allowed an 11-play, 78-yard drive to open the half, capped by QB Josh McCown's seven-yard TD pass to TE Gary Barnidge. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's first drive went nowhere as the line struggled again, allowing Martin to get hit behind the line of scrimmage and giving up that fourth sack of Winston.
That was it for the starters on both teams, as the remainder of the game was devoted to the other main pursuit of the preseason: determining the back end of the 53-man roster. Among the reserves who stood out in the second half was third-year defensive lineman William Gholston. Gholston recorded four tackles and two tackles for loss, including a critical third-down stop that killed a Cleveland drive in Bucs territory in the fourth quarter. On offense, rookie wide receivers Rannell Hall (two catches for 16 yards) and Adam Humphries (one 26-yard catch) had eye-catching moments on offense and also were involved in the return game (more on that below).
The Bucs hoped to carry momentum from Monday's win over Cincinnati into the start of Saturday's game, but instead got off to a very rough start. After losing seven yards on the game-opening drive and giving up a third-down sack of Winston, the special teams were stung by a big play. Rookie Karl Schmitz's 40-yard punt was fielded just across the 50-yard line by WR Travis Benjamin, who found an opening in the Bucs' coverage and raced through it for a 53-yard touchdown.
That began another up-and-down night for the Bucs' special teams, which have struggled at times in the preseason. The Bucs carried three punters into the game and used the 60 minutes to evaluate the two young hopefuls, Schmitz and Jacob Schum. Schmitz averaged 41.3 yards gross and 27.0 yards net on four punts, dropping one inside the 20. Schum also kicked four times and posted a 51.3-yard net and a 45.0-yard gross despite one touchback. The Bucs also have a battle for their kicker job between incumbent Patrick Murray and former Tampa Bay standout Connor Barth, but Barth missed on his only try, a 43-yarder in the second quarter. Murray later misfired on a 44-yard try. There were some bright moments in the return game between three rookie receivers. Hall gained 93 yards on three kickoff returns (31.0-yard avg.) while Clay had a 21-yard kickoff return and an 11-yard punt return before leaving with a ribs injury. Adam Humphries replaced Clay on punts and had a 12-yard return plus two fair catches.
Cleveland followed the aforementioned touchback with an 80-yard scoring drive on its first offensive possession. McCown, Tampa Bay's starting quarterback for most of last season, converted two third downs with scrambles then finished it with a rolling three-yard TD pass to WR Brian Hartline, giving Cleveland a 14-0 lead near the end of the first quarter. McCown completed 17 of 23 passes for 117 yards, two touchdowns and two interceptions and added 20 yards on three carries.
The Browns made it 17-0 early in the second quarter on a 36-yard field goal by Carey Spear following Charles Gaines' interception off Winston. The Bucs finally got on the board with 9:36 left in the half on a two-play drive capped by Doug Martin's 19-yard, tackle-breaking TD run.
Additional play-by-play highlights from Saturday's game:
- Winston was sacked on third-and-nine to end the Buccaneers' game-opening drive, but it wasn't a breakdown in protection. Winston enjoyed a well-formed pocket for a long time but couldn't find an open man and was eventually brought down by Desmond Bryant and Paul Kruger.
- After Benjamin's punt return touchdown, Winston got the Bucs' offense off to a better start with a 22-yard strike to Murphy. However, a false start and another sack by Bryant put the Bucs into a third-and-22 hole and even TE Austin Seferian-Jenkins' fine 14-yard catch in traffic couldn't keep the drive alive.
- Cleveland's first drive got the team's initial first down on a McCown scramble, as he picked up nine yards on a broken third-and-six play. Benjamin made his second big play of the first quarter later in the drive, reaching behind him to haul in a nine-yard pass on third-and-four, getting to the Bucs' 25. McCown kept the drive alive with another third-down scramble moments later, barely escaping a sack by George Johnson and getting eight yards on third-and-six. McCown completed the drive with a bootleg, three-yard touchdown pass to Hartline, who made a diving, toe-tapping catch and emphatically called for a challenge when he was initially ruled out of bounds. Hartline was right and the challenge overturned the initial call to give the visitors a 14-0 lead with 1:27 left in the first quarter.
- The Bucs' ensuing drive ended badly on Gaines' interception of a pass thrown under severe duress. The Browns brought a major blitz and quickly had Winston on the run, leading to an off-balance throw in the direction of WR Russell Shepard. It went to Gaines instead and he returned it 18 yards to the Bucs' 12 as the first quarter came to an end.
- Tampa Bay's defense did manage to respond well to that turnover, forcing a quick three-and-out that included hard hits by Alexander, Lavonte David and Mike Jenkins. Jenkins' well-timed blow to RB Duke Johnson broke up a third-down pass, leading Cleveland to settle for Carey Spear's 36-yard field goal.
- The Bucs brought in Sims to open their next drive and he got nine yards on a pair of hard-cutting runs. However, Martin's attempt to convert the third-and-one went nowhere as he was met well in the backfield by a penetrating group of Browns tacklers.
- A good punt by Schmitz, a big third-down hit on McCown by Henry Melton and Clay's 11-yard return allowed the Bucs to start their next drive in Cleveland territory. The Bucs needed just two plays to score, with Winston finding Jackson for 26 yards on a deep crossing route and Martin breaking off his 19-yard TD run on the next snap.
- The Bucs continued to swing the game's momentum on the next drive, with the defense forcing another three-and-out. David broke up a third-down pass attempt to Hartline over the middle, breaking quickly on the ball to knock it away.
- Tampa Bay started near midfield again and got two quick first downs on a 10-yard Martin run and Winston's precise pass to Jackson for 12 yards on third-and-six. However, the drive stalled there and Barth missed a 43-yard field goal try to the right.
- The Bucs' defense continued to swarm, with Alexander making an impressive dash through the line to stop RB Terrance West four yards behind the line of scrimmage. McCown appeared to convert a third-and-14 moments later with a 19-yard strike to Hartline, but the play came back on a chop-block penalty and the Browns had to punt.
- Cleveland got the ball to start the second half, with both teams still using their starters. A scrambling sideline strike by McCown to Gabriel converted an early third down and got the ball over midfield. A 17-yard run up the middle by West got the ball to the Bucs' 21, and McCown finished the drive with a seven-yard TD strike to Barnidge, who found a wide-open zone in the right side of the end zone.
- The Browns got into the Bucs' red zone again in the final two minutes of the third quarter when second-string quarterback Thaddeus Lewis threw a perfect 38-yard bomb down the left sideline to WR Josh Lenz. Three plays later, Lewis scrambled out of the pocket and bashed through two defenders to reach the end zone and give Cleveland a 31-7 lead.
- Mike Glennon led the Bucs into Cleveland territory with an 11-yard pass to RB Bobby Rainey and a 10-yard strike to Hall, but that drive stalled at the 28 and Murray pushed his 44-yard field goal try wide to the left.