The Detroit Lions went 4-0 during the 2008 preseason, and the New England Patriots went 0-4. That's probably enough to convince anyone that preseason "evidence" is not to be swallowed whole, considering that the Lions went on to an 0-16 regular season while the Patriots racked up 11 wins.
That's not picking on the Lions, who have come a long way in a hurry after that winless season. Coincidentally, the 2011 Lions just beat the Patriots, 34-10, this past weekend and, preseason or not, they must surely feel good about the big performances they got from Matthew Stafford and Cliff Avril. Still, the Lions' leading rusher, receiver and tackler in that game were Ian Johnson, Aaron Brown and Bobby Carpenter, respectively, and that's probably not what the Tampa Bay Buccaneers should expect when Detroit comes to town in Week One of the regular season.
Other than significant injuries, there isn't much one can see in a preseason game that can be taken totally at face value, simply because there are so many differences in playing time, personnel packages, scouting, game-planning, play-calling and the like when the outcome doesn't really count. A team's statistics page is one step further removed from relevance, unless you believe the Lions' quarterbacks are going to hold a 124.9 passer rating all year or the Buccaneers are never going to fumble.
But this is the only evidence we have so far, and it is entertaining and possibly instructional to look through the stats for signs of encouragement or worry. You can find plenty of the former and, admittedly, a bit of the latter on the Buccaneers' stat sheet through three quarters of the preseason, and a few in particular stand out.
Perhaps the best number Tampa Bay has put up this summer is 13. The most troubling? 34. Let's put them in context and see how much stock we should be putting in each.
That first number is the sack total for the Buccaneers' defense. Tampa Bay's 13 sacks through three games is the fourth-best total in the NFL this preseason, and just one behind the three teams tied for first: Buffalo, Houston and Philadelphia. This number is particularly encouraging because reheating the pass rush was undeniably the Buccaneers' number-one priority when it came to improving the roster in 2011. It's hard to argue otherwise when the team's first two picks in the draft were both sack-happy defensive ends.
The first of those picks, Iowa's Adrian Clayborn, has been starting at right end since the first game and has drawn a lot of attention from opposing lines, helping the Bucs' other linemen get free. The second-round pick, Clemson's Da'Quan Bowers, has been eased into the action more slowly as he recovers from offseason knee injury, but he got his first sack on Saturday against Miami. His development is one reason to believe the Bucs' pass-rush will be for real, as it adds great depth to the rotation up front.
"Right now, Michael Bennett is the starter and Bowers went out there and played well for us last week," said Head Coach Raheem Morris. "He gives us that great depth at that left end spot. He certainly raised expectations this weekend with how well he played and how physical he looked and how strong he looked."
The Bucs' pressure up front has been steady throughout August, with six sacks in the opener at Kansas City, two in Week Two against New England and another five on Saturday night against Miami. Defensive ends have accounted for 9.5 of those 13 sacks, but linebacker Dekoda Watson (2.5 sacks) has emerged as a potential difference-maker as a stand-up rusher, and the men on the edge have undoubtedly benefitted from the strong play inside of defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Frank Okam.
With McCoy, that might be somewhat expected, as the former Oklahoma star didn't go third overall in the 2010 draft in order to be a run-plugger. Okam, however, is widely seen as a massive, middle-of-the-line roadblock, and yet he is close to the team lead with three quarterback pressures already.
"Okam is a space-eater, a penetrator, a problem," said Morris. "He is huge. He is playing at a high level, great energy. He's unique man. He's certainly going to go out there and play for us. The unique part about Frank is that he plays nose tackle and three-technique. When he goes in there at three-technique he is still productive and heavy, and he gives us a different look. He's impressive so you do want to get him more snaps."
The Buccaneers tied for 30th in the NFL with 26 sacks last year, and have averaged just 28 per season since 2006. If they could pull their current pace into the regular season it would lead to a season-long total of 69 sacks. That is highly unlikely, of course – last year's team leader, Pittsburgh, had 48 sacks, and the Bucs' single-season record is 55. But, in a less stat-specific sense, should we believe the early evidence on Tampa Bay's improved pass rush?
That might depend on how strong your Buccaneer bias is, and it would be tough to deny some of that in this space. Still, it's also difficult to ignore that the franchise has sunk an incredible amount of resources into the defensive front over the past three seasons, and it may just be that they are about to bear fruit. That seems to be the opinion of starting center Jeff Faine, who has to face that group every day in practice.
"I'm excited about the possibilities of this young front," said Faine. "The great thing about it is that these guys are going to be together for a long time. So I'm looking forward to some bright years on that defensive line. They're both guys that play hard and are buying into the system. I know the defensive tackles are happy to have them on this team. For the DTs to be able to push the pocket and condense it, that would be good for the defense to be able to get that pressure on the quarterback."
As for the number 34, that's the whopping total of penalties the Buccaneers have committed through three preseason games so far. Two of those were very costly pass-interference calls against Miami on Saturday night, but a preponderance of them have been on offense, where even the first team has been plagued by procedural issues. The Buccaneers have recorded 321 yards of offense per game through the first three weeks of the preseason, and that's not terrible, but they're averaging only 18.7 points per outing, which is right in the middle of the NFL pack. Too many promising drives have been cut short by penalties that put the offense into unmanageable situations.
"I would love to tell you we're ready to go right now with all of that stuff but we're not and it's clear," said Morris. "We can't have those things. It's those things that kill drives on offense and make you not look efficient."
On average, the Buccaneers have incurred 11.3 penalties for 96.7 yards per game this preseason. If we stretched the 13 sacks to their 16-game regular-season hyperbole, we should do the same for the flags: 181 penalties for 1,547 yards. Yes, that would be quite a bit more than the Buccaneers drew in 2010, when they recorded 100 penalties for 837 yards. That total was near the middle of the NFL pack and not a discouraging number for the league's youngest team. This preseason has been different, but is it a true harbinger of things to come in the regular season.
Faine thinks it has something to do with the way preseason games are officiated.
"I think that the officials call it a little tighter because it's the preseason," he said. "They're working on things in the preseason to get ready for the regular season as well. I don't necessarily think they will call it the same way in the regular season. But a false start is a false start, and holding is going to happen. It's just part of the game. Hopefully we can clean up what we can clean up for the beginning of the regular season."
To be clear, Faine wasn't complaining about the manner in which the preseason games are called, and Morris even feels he has had something to do with that tendency.
"I asked for it; I asked for them to call it tight," said Morris. "I don't want the warnings in the preseason, so I kind of put some of that on myself. The things you would be concerned about with penalties is if they were the foolish ones, the personal fouls that you can control. If you have the ones you can control, the dumb stuff…but I don't see that."
So, yes, the Buccaneers are choosing to believe the most encouraging number on their preseason stat sheet is the real deal while worrying relatively little about the most discouraging number. Call that bias, if you will, but it might be more accurately described as the confidence of youth. The alternative, of course, is to choose not to believe any preseason numbers.
The Usual Pattern
The numbers the Buccaneers add to their preseason stat sheet on Thursday night in Washington will probably have the least regular-season relevance of them all, because the team's starters won't have much – if anything – to do with them.
As has become custom around the NFL, the majority of the Buccaneers' starters will either be given the night off or will don a baseball hat within a series of two. A year ago, for instance, Tampa Bay concluded its preseason in Houston and the entire starting 11 on offense gave way to reserves. In fact, with starting quarterback Josh Freeman sidelined by a thumb injury and second-stringer Josh Johnson coming off several very nice games, the start under center went to first-year man Rudy Carpenter. Tailback Kareem Huggins and fullback Chris Pressley joined Carpenter in the backfield.
On defense, the Bucs did start much of its front seven, including rookie defensive tackle Gerald McCoy and outside linebackers Geno Hayes and Quincy Black, but they didn't play long.
On Monday, as the team began preparing for Thursday's game, Morris confirmed the obvious: His Buccaneers will follow a very similar plan to end this year's preseason, using the fourth game to cull out the edges of the roster and then moving immediately on to full-bore preparations for the regular-season opener.
"We're stacking the bottom of our roster in Washington," he said. "Then after we get the bottom of our roster stacked and our team put together, and get our practice squad filled out, the coaches will already be ready to deal with Detroit and what we're going to do in Week One on 9/11."
Rookie safety Ahmad Black took part in practice for the first time since he suffered a high ankle sprain in the preseason opener. Black would obviously like to have one more opportunity to impress the coaches before the regular season, but the Bucs are on a short week and Morris wasn't yet sure if the fifth-round pick would be ready.
"I hope he can be out there," said Morris. "I know he's going to try and give it a go this week. It'd be hard right now for him to get out there and do some things, especially with Larry Asante and Cory Lynch and those guys playing their butts off this season, not to mention our starters. It'll be tough. You'd like to see him out there."
Tight end Kellen Winslow made his preseason debut on Saturday night against Miami and played extensively before slightly rolling his ankle. The Buccaneers' announced at the time that Winslow was "probable" to return, but since it was the preseason he did not come back into the game. Clearly, the injury was minor because Winslow was back on the practice field participating fully on Monday.
Of course, Winslow may not play on Thursday anyway, as mentioned above. The same is true of starting left guard Ted Larsen, who also suffered an ankle injury against Miami. Larsen did not practice on Monday but his injury does not appear to be a long-term concern.
"We'll see about those guys," said Morris. "It's nothing to worry about, nothing I'm fearful of right now with those guys and their injuries."