DE Gaines Adams and the Bucs' young linemen will be trying to get at mobile Titans QB Vince Young
Stunningly, almost without warning, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are now just 30 days away from their first game of 2009.
There are almost no players at One Buccaneer Place these days, and even the coaching staff is on a brief hiatus. There are 81 players on the roster, one unsigned rookie, several starting spots up for grabs and entirely new offensive and defensive systems to finalize.
And yet, in just four weeks and two days, the Buccaneers will be in uniform, in pads and ready to hit, pass, block and tackle for real. Obviously, the next month is going to be seriously eventful.
The season will kick off on August 15 in Nashville, where the Buccaneers will take on the Tennessee Titans. It is a preseason game, so the '09 Bucs – as well as the '09 Titans – will still be something of a work in progress. Still, it can't be taken lightly; the four weeks of the preseason will pass as quickly as the four weeks between now and that contest in Nashville. Winning that game isn't critical, but neither is it irrelevant. The '09 Buccaneers don't even necessarily know what to make of themselves; every win, preseason or regular season, will be a lesson in confidence.
So let's take a look at that first opponent for the Raheem Morris-led Buccaneers, the Tennessee Titans, how they've fared against the Buccaneers in the past and what challenges they may pose in August of 2009.
First, the Tampa Bay and Tennessee have met seven times in the preseason before 2009 (including several times before the Titans franchise moved from Houston) and the Buccaneers have dominated the August series. Tampa Bay has won six of seven preseason meetings between the two squads, including the most recent faceoff, a 2005 preseason opener that saw the Bucs leave Nashville with a 20-17 overtime victory.
Of course, Tennessee is well ahead in the regular-season series, having won seven of nine meetings between the two teams. The Bucs do own the most recent decision, having beaten the Titans, 13-10, in a 2007 game at Raymond James Stadium.
The team that invaded Nashville in the summer of 2005 was somewhat in flux – it was coming off a disappointing 2004 campaign, had a different starting quarterback than the opening game of the year before and was waiting to see what it would get out of first-round pick Cadillac Williams – but not on the order of this year's squad. The 2009 Buccaneers have a new head coach in Morris and will have a new starting quarterback after the free agency departure of Jeff Garcia. The Tennessee contest will be the first of a four-game competition to determine whether that new starter is Luke McCown, Byron Leftwich, Josh Freeman or Josh Johnson.
The Titans, on the other hand, return their starting backfield from a 2008 season in which they went 13-3 and won the AFC South over the favored Indianapolis Colts. However, since this is a preseason opener, starters such as quarterback Kerry Collins and running backs Chris Johnson and LenDale White will likely make only brief cameos. That could make things interesting for a Buccaneers' defense keen to see how well it can rush the passer, as backup Vince Young is one of the league's most mobile quarterbacks.
The Titans are also loaded with running backs to test Tampa Bay's young linebacking crew. Johnson and White may not play extensively, but the Titans have an interesting rookie in former Michigan State star Javon Ringer. Considered a selfless competitor and ultimate hard worker at MSU, Ringer rang up 1,637 rushing yards and 22 touchdowns as a senior, leading the Titans to take him in the fifth round despite their already-strong backfield.
The Titans have Bo Scaife and former Atlanta Falcon Alge Crumpler at tight end but the Bucs might see more of rookie Jared Cook, a third-rounder who was just the third tight end drafted this past April. Similarly, Tennessee's wide receiver corps got a boost in the draft, this time in the first round. The Titans used their opening pick on 6-3, 218-pound Rutgers wideout Kenny Britt, a strong route-runner who should provide Collins – or whoever is quarterbacking in August – with a good target in traffic.
Tennessee's defense took an obvious hit over the offseason with the free agency defection of Pro Bowl defensive tackle Albert Haynesworth. Of course, the Bucs wouldn't have seen much of Haynesworth in early August anyway, so the more relevant player for the preseason opener is probably rookie Sen'Derrick Marks, Tennessee's second-round pick in April. The 306-pound Marks isn't as big as Haynesworth, but he's quick and can penetrate the backfield; the knock on the former Auburn standout is the consistency in his play. Chances are Marks will be motivated to prove himself against a series of Tampa Bay offensive line reserves.
As for the Buccaneers' young receivers, who will get plenty of opportunity to show their stuff in the preseason opener, one of their key competitors will be Titans rookie Ryan Mouton. The former Hawaii cornerback isn't big (5-9, 187) but he's a scrappy, determined player and some considered him one of the more underrated defensive backs in the draft.
Early-August games are unpredictable, and the matchups that will dominate the game are completely unpredictable at this point. But it's fair to say that the new-look Buccaneers will get a very strong test in their first 2009 outing…and that test is amazingly just around the corner.