You know when you get off a boat and you're so used to the rocking back and forth on the water that once you're standing on land, it takes you a second to get the hang of it again? Not that I'm referencing any specific instance of that… but that can kind of describe the Buccaneers in their preseason opener on Saturday night. It took them a bit to get their sea legs, pun intended, after not playing a preseason game in almost two years but the waters should be smoother moving forward. The cadence of the night, the player rotation and, you know, that whole extra point thing were all things that didn't quite go to plan in the Bucs' 19-14 loss to the Cincinnati Bengals but that didn't mean there still weren't some good things to take from the game, either.
"The ball game – there was good and bad, a lot of bad, a lot of ugly," said Head Coach Bruce Arians. "The good is we came out healthy. It's a start."
It's a start and that's all it is. Offensive and defensive starters played just six total snaps. From there, the game became all about evaluating individual players, with an emphasis on their contributions to special teams. Arians said following the game that the first 30-35 spots on the roster are already locked up, thanks to the Bucs bringing back all 22 of their Super Bowl starters and then some for 2021. It means the competition for guys on the bubble is that much stiffer and proving value on special teams seems to be the key to sticking.
So, with that in mind, let's take a look at those good, bad and ugly things Arians was talking about.
View the best photos from the Bucs first preseason game vs. the Cincinnati Bengals.
1. The good.
Second-year running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn shined both on offense and special teams, which will be key to the Bucs thinking it worthwhile to carry four running backs on the active roster. Vaughn had 11 carries for 27 yards and a touchdown on the ground, in addition to two catches for 10 yards. Vaughn also played 17% of the team's special teams snaps at different positions.
"I thought he played lights out," said Arians. "He made a hell of a play as a gunner. He ran the ball well, blocked well. I thought he made a really nice step, especially his special team snaps. We know he can run and we know he can catch. Those plays on special teams were big for him."
He elaborated on Sunday.
"Looking at the stuff we record speed with, he hit 21 MPH covering that kick, which he has never hit that kind of speed," Arians continued on Vaughn. "He might have more juice in the tank than that. That showed he beat their starting vice. For his first time, that was good."
And speaking of special teams, that will be a crucial area for tight ends to prove themselves with Tanner Hudson and Codey McElroy both making their case for that fourth tight end spot. McElroy played the most combined snaps of any of the skill players on Saturday night, playing 47% of the team's offensive snaps and 39% of the special teams snaps. He also had a fantastic catch in the back corner of the end zone from rookie quarterback Kyle Trask on a two-point conversion.
It was Hudson that led all receivers though, accounting for nearly a third of the team's total receiving yards. He had four catches for 48 yards, including an 18-yard catch where he hurdled a defender to get to the two-yard line and set up the Bucs' first touchdown of the night. Arians said this week that Hudson needs to improve in his blocking abilities as a tight end, but one thing is for sure – he can most certainly catch.
Defensively, linebackers (both inside and outside) stole the show. Lavonte David started things off early, making the most of those aforementioned six snaps by forcing and recovering a fumble on the Bengals' first drive of the game. Joe Jones, who is in the mix at inside linebacker depth, registered his first career interception and then finished the job, taking it 15 yards into the end zone.
"That was great," said Arians of Jones' pick six. "It was his first one and the quarterback – he didn't just throw it behind the receiver, he threw it behind Joe. It was a good catch. He's been struggling with that route in practice, so it was great to see him show up in the game and jump it and get it."
The defense overall recorded four takeaways on the night, two interceptions and two fumbles. It's good to see that carrying over from years past.
Then, there was outside linebacker Joe Tryon, who was disruptive all night, as Arians put it. He laid the boom on Cincinnati quarterback Brandon Allen, sacking him for a major loss, but was flagged for unnecessary roughness. Arians was not pleased, to say the least.
"Called a timeout to get an explanation on Joe Tryon's sack on a runner, not a quarterback," said Arians. "There's no such thing as bodyweight. Really wasn't happy with the explanation but I was happy with the timeout."
Well, that's something.
2. The bad.
That also brings us to the bad. Arians said he would have liked to have seen more out of each side of the trenches and then went on to say defensively, it was 'probably the worst tackling experience I've seen in a long time.'
"It was like we had no arms," he said. "Everything was shouldered and blocking. Some young guys put some embarrassing stuff on tape."
Cornerback Antonio Hamilton led the way with seven tackles, one for loss, and got himself a forced fumble. Though, it's likely not a good sign when a corner has the most tackles on the team. Safety Javon Hagan had three tackles for loss, which was great, but experienced a rollercoaster of emotions when he fumbled a fantastic interception he managed to get his hands on to give the ball back to the Bengals.
The defense was also out there a lot more than the offense. Cincinnati had a 34:15 to 25:45 time of possession advantage over the Bucs. And when the Bucs' offense did have the ball in their hands, they weren't able to get anything going in the second half, especially. The first two drives of the second half ended in interceptions, the next four were punts and then time expired on the night during the Bucs' last possession, which was all of 16 seconds.
3. The really ugly.
Honestly, because it's preseason, the really ugly Arians was referring to isn't much of a concern at all. Special teams was a major emphasis all night, given how much a lot of depth guys had to prove in that phase of the ball, so it's natural there are improvements to be made there.
"I think the major improvement will be blocking when the kicks are short," Arians said. "We didn't do a very good job of setting on our kickoff return guys. We set on them way too late, and I think Ke'Shawn really got his shot to get up the field, but I know what he can do. I think Jaelon [Darden] is fine. He has a ton of tape from college. Jaydon Mickens has done it before so I want to give Scotty Miller some reps on punt return this week and see what he can do."
That's why it was perhaps even more of an eye sore when the Bucs went to go for two points after their first touchdown of the night but ended up setting up for a fake… only to revert back to a traditional point after attempt that was then illegal because they were lined up on the two-yard line.
"You could have called a time out or you could have taken a delay of game," said Arians of the options the team had at that point. "Or you just could have ran the damn fake. That's what we wanted to do."
It's not what happened but rest assured, just like pretty much all of the lowlights of the loss to the Bengals, it will be corrected before the real thing begins. There shouldn't be cause for concern going forward, especially with the starting defense playing lights out and special teams players flashing good things. That's what preseason is for – getting your sea legs.