Ryan Fitzpatrick's first possession of the at the helm of the Tampa Bay's offense on Thursday night went for a touchdown. Jameis Winston's first possession on Thursday night went for a touchdown. Two quarterbacks, one win, zero worries a week into the 2018 preseason, as the Bucs' first live action of the summer resulted in a 26-24 road win over the Miami Dolphins.
"We started well," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Got off to a good start, then you get subs in and it can get a little choppy after that. But both Fitz and Jameis moved the team well."
It actually took three strong quarterback performances for the Buccaneers to sneak out of Miami with the two-point victory. Ryan Griffin directed a seven-play, 67-yard drive in the game's final 1:50, setting up Chandler Catanzaro for the 26-yard game-winner. Cornerback Ryan Smith sealed the victory with an interception in Bucs territory on the Dolphins' last offensive span. The Bucs were forced to rally after fourth-string Miami QB Bryce Petty threw a six-yard touchdown pass to WR Isaiah Ford and converted on a two-point try to give Miami its first lead right after the two-minute warning.
There are still three weeks to go in the preseason and, even more critically, an unusual three-week start to the regular season in which the Buccaneers will have Fitzpatrick under center while Winston is serving an NFL suspension. That puts the team in the unusual position of essentially preparing two starting quarterbacks in August, but the first live effort in that regard went quite well on Thursday night.
Fitzpatrick started the game and led a 57-yard touchdown drive on Tampa Bay's first possession, ending in RB Peyton Barber's four-yard scoring run on third-and-three. The 14th-year passer was given a second possession, and though it fizzled just over midfield, he completed his first six passes, with his last two going in and out of the hands of his targets. Fitzpatrick's final line included that six-of-eight passing for 55 yards, as well as two helpful scrambles for 11 yards.
"We have a really good quarterback room," said starting WR Mike Evans, who had two catches for 26 yards in his brief time on the field. "It’s my job and all the receivers’ jobs to get open, run our routes and make plays no matter who is throwing it. We are very fortunate to have an experienced vet like Fitz. He’s been really good for us."
Winston entered the game in the second quarter, getting his first snap in Miami territory after S Isaiah Johnson recovered a fumble by RB Kalen Ballage caused by CB Ryan Smith at the 32. Winston's 19-yard strike to Freddie Martino set up rookie RB Ronald Jones' three-yard touchdown run. Tampa Bay's next possession started at midfield and Winston's downfield completions to Justin Watson and Cameron Brate set up Chandler Catanzaro's 27-yard field goal for a 16-3 Tampa Bay lead.
Winston completed 11 of 13 passes for 102 yards on the night, compiling a passer rating of 99.4. He did take one sack, but his passing was almost uniformly sharp. While both Barber and Jones scored, the Bucs' running game bogged down a bit after a quick start, as Tampa Bay gained just 39 yards on the ground in the first half, averaging 3.0 yards per carry. Still, there were enough big plays early from the ground game to keep the offense balanced.
"That’s huge," said Fitzpatrick. "We have to be able to both – on the ground and through the air this year. That’s what an effective offense is going to be so it’s nice to see those guys get in the end zone."
All of that could have resulted in nothing if Griffin hadn't performed extremely well after Fitzpatrick and Winston were done. Likely to be the number-two quarterback during Winston's suspension, Griffin played the entire second half and completed 20 of 26 passes for 179 yards, one touchdown, no interceptions and a 107.7 passer rating. Combined, Tampa Bay's three passers hit on 37 of 47 passes for 336 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions, and they were collectively sacked just one time.
The Dolphins took out starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill after just one drive and began alternating between backups David Fales and Brock Osweiler. Tampa Bay's starting defense stayed in for two possessions, and while it did give up 92 yards on those drives the result on the scoreboard was just three points. Most notably, Tampa Bay's defense – both first-stringers and reserves – did not allow Miami to convert a single third down in the first half, in six tries. That is an area of great emphasis after the Bucs' ranked last in third-down defense a year ago.
"Our first [defense] was a little 'bend-but-don’t-break,' but they got the job done," said Koetter.
Statistically, the first half was relatively even, with the Dolphins gaining 203 yards and 15 first downs to the Bucs' 186 and 14. However, Tampa Bay limited scoring opportunities with its work on third downs and the only takeaway of the first half. The Bucs also started four of their first six drives at their own 40-yard line or better.
After finishing last in the NFL with 22 sacks in 2017, the Buccaneers put a major offseason emphasis on beefing up the defensive line. The very early results were mildly encouraging, as the Buccaneers recorded two sacks in the first half, one by six-time Pro Bowler Gerald McCoy against Miami's first team. Later in the first half, DE Noah Spence got around the left end quickly and created a split-sack with teammate Patrick O'Connor. New Bucs DE Jason Pierre-Paul didn't have a sack in his limited action but he did make a pair of consecutive tackles in the first quarter.
The Bucs primarily used free agency to add to the defensive line, and then turned to the draft to restock the secondary, selecting cornerbacks M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis along with safety Jordan Whitehead. All three played extensively, with Davis standing out in particular. Davis started opposite Vernon Hargreaves with Brent Grimes out and broke up two passes.
Thursday's game also included the first instance of the new helmet rules affecting a Buccaneer game. Dolphins S Maurice Smith was flagged for lowering his head to initiate contact on a hit on TE Antony Auclair in the third quarter. The new rule to treat headfirst dives by quarterbacks the same as feet-first slides also came up on a Fitzpatrick scramble in the first quarter, as Fitzpatrick landed at the Dolphins' two but the ball was spotted back at the four, where his dive began.
The Dolphins got the game's first possession and moved the ball over midfield on three straight underneath completions by Tannehill. Pierre-Paul made consecutive tackles to put Miami into a third-and-11 hole, but a 10-yard run on a draw by Kenyan Drake and a fourth-and-inches conversion kept the drive alive. The Bucs' defense held there, with S Justin Evans nearly intercepting a downfield pass and Kwon Alexander broke up a short pass over the middle on third-and-eight. Miami brought rookie K Jason Sanders on to try a 53-yard field goal but he hooked it wide to the left.
Tampa Bay took over at its own 43-yard line and drive 57 yards for the game's first touchdown. Fitzpatrick started the drive with consecutive completions to DeSean Jackson and Mike Evans for 18 and 14 yards, respectively, and Barber got the ball inside the 10 with runs of nine and five yards. A Fitzpatrick scramble made it third-and-three at the four, and Barber took it in from there for the game's first point. Catanzaro hooked his first extra point attempt as a Buc to the left, leaving the score at 6-0.
The Dolphins brought in Fales and a number of other reserves for their second possession but were able to take the next possession for points. Fales completed consecutive passes to Albert Wilson for a total of 31 yards, helping to overcome a sack by McCoy. However, a pass-interference call on Smith cost the Bucs' defense 24 yards and set up a 29-yard field goal by Sanders after Tampa Bay held inside its red zone.
Tampa Bay's second drive looked promising as well, as Fitzpatrick ran his streak to six straight completions, including first-down passes to Evans and Chris Godwin. The veteran quarterback also scrambled for another first down, but Godwin was unable to hold onto a downfield pass as he was hit by S Minkah Fitzpatrick and a third-down check-down to Jones was dropped, setting up a punt.
The Dolphins started their third drive at their own 11, with Osweiler now under center. The Buccaneers brought in a second-string defense and the first quarter ended after one nine-yard run by rookie Kalen Ballage. After Davis broke up a deep pass intended for WR Jakeem Grant, the Bucs' defense got the game's first takeaway when Smith forced a Ballage fumble near the sideline and Johnson recovered at Miami's 32.
Winston came on to take over the offense and completed his first pass to Godwin for five yards. After Jones got five more for a first down at the 22, Winston found a wide-open Martino, who darted around one defender and got to the three-yard line. Jones got two carries from there and found a seam over left tackle on the second one for his first NFL touchdown.
The Dolphins followed with the game's first three-and-out, keyed by the Spence/O'Connor sack made possible when Spence's quick rush flushed Osweiler out of the pocket. A short and low punt and Bernard Reedy's 12-yard return allowed the Bucs to start their next drive at midfield.
Winston started the ensuing drive with consecutive sharp passes to Brate for 17 yards and Watson for 16 yards. The drive stalled inside the red zone but Catanzaro came on to kick a 27-yard field goal for a 16-3 Buccaneers lead.
Fales came back into the game to play quarterback for the Dolphins and promptly led a team of Miami reserves on a 75-yard touchdown jaunt against a group of Buccaneers reserve defenders. RB Senorise Perry did a lot of the heavy lifting on the drive, rushing three times for 34 yards and catching two passes for 24 yards. Perry took it in for the score on a tackle-breaking run from the Buccaneers' seven.
Winston's precision pass to Brate between three defenders got the next drive started with a 20-yard gain but Winston was then sacked by DT Vincent Taylor and the drive died near midfield. Miami used their timeouts to buy one more possession with 1:36 left in the half but it started at their own seven. The Dolphins got one first down but punted away and the Buccaneers started over at their own 24 with 30 seconds left in the half.
The second half started out poorly for the Buccaneers, beginning with a penalty on the opening kickoff return. With Griffin in at quarterback, the Bucs committed their first turnover of the game, as Watson fumbled after making a short catch over the middle. That gave Miami possession at the Bucs' 13-yard line, which turned into a 23-yard field goal for Sanders. DE William Gholston denied the Dolphins four more points when he broke up a third-and-two pass at the five-yard line that looked like it was headed to a wide-open target.
Griffin's second possession was impressive. It started with a 15-yard gift on Smith's lowering-the-head personal foul, but Griffin later converted three third downs to complete an 88-yard touchdown drive to give the Bucs a 10-point lead with six minutes left in the third quarter. The first conversion was a quick out to Watson that the rookie receiver caught and turned up the sideline for the necessary last few yards. After rookie back Dare Ogunbowale just got over the line on a fourth-and-one pitch from the Miami 29, Griffin converted a third-and-10 with a hard liner over the middle to Cross. Three plays later, on third-and-five, Griffin looked for Cross again and found him in the end zone for a 10-yard touchdown. Cross leaped high to snare the hard pass and then held on as he hit the ground a yard from the back line of the end zone.
On the Dolphins' next drive, Fales threw deep to WR Francis Owusu for a 45-yard gain down the middle of the field. That led to a 48-yard field goal by Miami's other rookie kicker, Greg Joseph. Early in the fourth quarter, the Dolphins moved into Tampa Bay territory again with Osweiler under center. Miami converted a fourth-and-two on Drew Morgan's eight-yard catch, and the Dolphins' first two third-down conversions of the night followed, setting up a first down at the Bucs' eight. Tampa Bay forced a fourth-and-goal from there and Cameron Lynch's pressure on Osweiler led to a desperation pass that rookie S Jordan Whitehead broke up in the end zone.
Griffin used a succession of quick passes to move the Bucs into Miami territory on the ensuing drive but it ended without points as Catanzaro's 53-yard field goal attempt was wide right. That miss gave the Dolphins another chance to take the lead and they succeeded on a long drive led by Petty. The march ended on Petty's six-yard touchdown pass to Ford, after which the Dolphins made the decidedly-preseason decision to go for two. Petty's completion to Ford in the right side of the end zone gave Miami a 24-23 lead with 1:50 left.
The lead was short-lived. Griffin directed a breakneck drive in the final minutes, completing passes of 12 yards to rookie WR Ervin Philips, 18 yards to Ogunbowale and 20 yards to rookie WR Sergio Bailey. Bailey's catch put the ball at the Miami 17, and the Bucs ran twice to erase the Dolphins' last timeouts before Catanzaro put the Bucs back on top with a 26-yard field goal. Miami had a few seconds left to try to get into field goal range but Ryan Smith ended the game with an interception at the Bucs' 32.