The final week of the preseason has arrived, and with it the usual star-studded list of healthy scratches and the parade of highly-motivated young players fighting for their NFL lives.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Redskins Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium and, as has become customary in the waning hours of the preseason, both teams will be dividing the majority of the snaps among the second, third and fourth-stringers on their depth charts. There are literally dozens of jobs still up for grabs, and not all of them are as obvious as "starting right cornerback" or "third receiver."
"There are some guys that aren't going to play very much, if at all, but there are a lot of guys that are going to be playing for jobs," said Buccaneers Head Coach Greg Schiano. "Whether that's to get on the team, make the 53, or it's, 'Am I the fifth corner or the fourth corner?' Or, 'Am I the fourth tackle or the third tackle?' All those things will go into tonight's performance. There are four preseason games and you get to use those games just a little differently than you do practice because it's against another team. We kind of value those just a little bit more, so here's another opportunity for guys to go make their stamp on what they believe to be their role."
The Buccaneers already reduced their roster to 75 players this week, as mandated by the NFL. Another round of cuts will follow over the weekend, after this final preseason audition, and it will be even more difficult. Thursday's game is far from the only piece of evidence that Buccaneers coaches will take into account, but it is important.
"The cutdown is not easy," said Schiano. "Ninety to 75 is supposed to be but, trust me, it's not. You get attached to these guys, they really work very, very hard and they're great parts of your team. There were some good football players that we had to let go, and that was challenging. But we had some good work [in practice], guys continued to get better, and then we have this game tonight and it wraps it up. Then we have some real tough cuts – we have to go from 75 down to 53, which is a real challenge."
Rookie Mike Glennon will get the start at quarterback, his first in the NFL, and the Buccaneers are hoping he can continue the steady improvement he has shown since they drafted him out of North Carolina State in the third round in April. Glennon has been holding the #2 spot on the depth chart behind Josh Freeman since the start of camp, and a good performance on Thursday night would help solidify the Buccaneers' confidence in him as Freeman's primary reserve.
"We've been pleased with Mike and his development," said Schiano. "He's gotten better each and every day, he understands it just a little bit better. I think Coach [John] McNulty, Coach [Mike] Sullivan, Josh and Dan [Orlovsky] have all helped him in this growth. He gets another chance tonight to go out and play. He's played a lot of football in this preseason and that's exactly what he needed to get his feet wet."
Who Glennon hands the ball off in the first half could be very telling in terms of the Buccaneers' attempts to sort out the depth chart in the offensive backfield. Doug Martin, the starter, won't play against the Redskins, allowing more snaps for the three backs jockeying for spots behind him: Brian Leonard, Mike James and Peyton Hillis. All three have had impressive moments in August, and all three have some potential versatility that could help the Buccaneers on game day, when the active roster is reduced to 46 men. Leonard got the start last week in Martin's absence, but it's safe to say that jobs are still up for grabs at that position.
"There are four really good ballcarriers, guys I think can do it in this league," said Schiano. "We have a couple decisions to make. Number one, we have to decide how many are we going to keep. Are we going to keep four, three? And then what is going to be the pecking order? I think there might be a pecking order [that is] more job-specific. Looking at these guys and what they're capable of doing – Doug is our number one, that's a definite, but I think after that there are a lot of ways to massage that lineup at running back and use their strengths."
James is the lone rookie in that trio, a sixth-round draft pick out of Miami who has impressed with his one-cut running style and his dedication to the craft. James had a very strong game against New England in Week Two (103 yards from scrimmage) and is likely to get a healthy dose of playing time on Thursday night.
"Mike's done a nice job," said Schiano. "He's got a tremendous attitude. This guy is a hard-worker, he's a dedicated guy, he's a team guy. Now, he's making progress. He can carry the football – he's got good vision, good feet. What he, like most rookie backs, struggles with is protection. It's not that he doesn't know what to do, but these are some big guys coming. The linebackers that are blitzing in this league are just a little bit bigger than what he was used to in college. So he's getting it slowly, and the better he gets at that the more full or total back he becomes."
The Buccaneers and Redskins will wrap up the 2013 preseason on Thursday night, with kickoff at 7:30 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com. Visit Buccaneers.com throughout the evening for further reports on the evening's action, including coverage of the team's postgame press conferences.