A year ago, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers saved their best effort of the preseason for Week Three, taking a 30-28 decision from the New England Patriots in a game that featured both team's starting units for more than half of the game. Quarterback Josh Freeman was sharp, newcomer Vincent Jackson was Freeman's favorite target and rookie running back Doug Martin ran for 53 yards in a preview of his great season ahead. It was an encouraging effort for Greg Schiano's first team, particularly considering the 20-7 lead it took into halftime against Tom Brady and the Patriot's high-powered offense.
It was also the last time Davin Joseph suited up for a football game. It was the very definition of a Pyrrhic victory…in the long run, the game didn't count in the standings, but the loss of Joseph for the season to a knee injury was quite real.
Having absorbed a 25-21 loss to those same Patriots this past Friday – this time in Foxboro instead of Raymond James Stadium – the Buccaneers are once again heading into the critical third week of the preseason, which will culminate in Saturday's game against the Dolphins in Miami. Freeman and his fellow starters will get their one extended dress rehearsal before the regular season and this time the Buccaneers may be getting several players back from long-term injuries.
In fact, Joseph is one of those potential candidates to return, though it's more likely that his fellow Pro Bowl guard, Carl Nicks, will make his 2013 debut. Nicks missed the last nine games of his own first season as a Buccaneer, playing through a toe injury for weeks before finally having to shut it down in November. Nicks is still dealing with a toe ailment this summer, but he is close to returning to the field. The coaching staff considered getting him some action last weekend in New England but chose to wait one more week with the idea of preparing for more extended work in Week Three.
That doesn't mean, however, that Nicks is a lock to play on Saturday. Both guards will play only if it makes sense within the larger picture, which is what Schiano has been saying since the start of training camp
"I don't want to say that," said the coach when asked if Joseph or Nicks was definitely slated to see action against the Dolphins. "Again, that's a day-to-day [situation] to me, and again, we have a plan but we're willing to tweak that plan based on what we think is best with one goal in mind, and that is to start the season with our best players on the field."
That's the same consideration at play in regards to cornerback Darrelle Revis, who also get a single preseason tune-up in Miami if it is deemed the right thing to do. Schiano is on record as saying he doesn't believe it is essential for the All-Pro defender to get any preseason action in order to be ready for Week One of the regular season, but a little work obviously wouldn't hurt if it ends up fitting into Revis' very precise recovery process.
There are also a number of Buccaneers who are working through less serious injuries suffered since the start of training camp. The team left some of them home in Tampa last week during its jaunt to New England in order to let them focus on their rehab and try to get ready to return to practice on Monday. That group included kicker Lawrence Tynes, wide receiver Chris Owusu and cornerback Danny Gorrer. All three would benefit greatly from a quick return, because all three are involved in very tight position battles. The competitions for the third and fourth receiver spots (Owusu's goal) and the nickel corner position (a possibility for Gorrer) have been watched closely since the start of camp, but Tynes is in a fight that has received considerably less attention. The established veteran and former New York Giant was signed after the Bucs lost incumbent kicker to an off-the-field Achilles tendon injury, but the job hasn't been simply handed to him due to his track record. Instead, Tynes is fighting for that job with first-year man Derek Dimke, who has kicked well on both the practice field and in games while Tynes has been sidelined with a toe injury. Dimke kicked two more field goals Friday night in New England to make him five for five during the preseason.
"For some reason, everybody assumed Tynes was the guy and Dimke had to beat him out," said Schiano. "We didn't have a kicker when we came into camp, we had two, and we're going to find out who our number one is. That hasn't changed. Tynes unfortunately hasn't been able to work because he's had that toe [injury], so hopefully we'll get him back Monday and get that competition going again.
"What I can say about Derek is he's done a nice job placekicking. With the exception of the one up in New England at practice, he's been darn near perfect. Unfortunately, he's doing all the kicking and I think his leg's getting a little tired too, but he was able to hit…every kick."
As for Martin, he took a knee to the helmet early in Friday's game and didn't play again after leaving the field slowly. However, he wasn't likely to see many more snaps anyway, and the indications are that he is fine. Assuming he's in action on Saturday night, he and his fellow starters will probably remain in the game for at least the entirety of the first half.
"They won't play the whole game, but they'll play the most in this game of any of the preseason games," said Schiano.
The Bucs' coach enjoyed the team's week in New England in part because it gave him a chance to get the players away from distractions and build team chemistry. That was technically the last few days of Tampa Bay's training camp, and while the team will continue with a similar practice schedule this week the players will no longer be spending every night in a hotel. Schiano hopes his team maintains a singular focus this week, however, because it would once again be very encouraging if the Buccaneers' best showing of the preseason came in Week Three.
"Now that guys are back home and we've broken camp, they're back living at their houses, and that's good," said Schiano. "That's where we need to be right now, and now we've got to lock in and have a good week. There's plenty to look at on [Friday's game] tape and say, 'This is what we need to improve on.' And then we have plenty of practice time to improve on it, and hopefully we'll go out and continue to improve and play better football Saturday night. I'm looking forward to it."