Pictures from the Buccaneers' Preseason Week 1 matchup with the Bengals.
It was nearly the perfect beginning to the prelude of the start of the anticipation of something big.
In other words, it's very, very early, but the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' big expectations for the 2017 season got a welcome bit of validation from the team's first live action in Cincinnati on Friday night. A game-opening 94-yard march, nearly a touchdown drive, highlighted rising-star quarterback Jameis Winston and his favorite target, Mike Evans while also underscoring the vast array of offensive weapons the Bucs now own. The possession unfortunately ended in a short field goal, not seven points but, again, this is just the beginning.
"We [were] backed up a couple times tonight and got it out of trouble," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It was a good start. One of our things is we have to finish for touchdowns. It wasn't perfect, but it's better than a kick in the butt."
It was not, however, a victory for Winston and the Buccaneers. With both teams' reserves playing the majority of the game, the Bengals scored two touchdowns in the third quarter and walked away with a 23-12 win. It was still a necessary and important step as Tampa Bay prepares for the regular season and a run at its first playoff berth in 10 years.
"That's how the first preseason game goes," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "It's going to be rusty, but that's what it's for. They're keeping score, so obviously we want to win, but we'll see how it looks on film. We've got a lot to fix though."
Winston completed nine of his 13 passes for 90 yards and a 91.5 passer rating that only suffered by those two missed touchdown opportunities. He moved extremely well in the pocket and helped the offense convert three of five third downs while he was in the game. His second and final drive, while not a points-producer, was still a success as he moved the ball far away from where it started at the Bucs' one-yard line. In short, he was poised and accurate in a relatively brief cameo against the Bengals' starting defense.
"Third down is the money down in the NFL," said tight end Cameron Brate, who caught a third-down pass in Bengals territory on the opening drive. "We have such a strong connection between Jameis and Mike that the defense gravitates towards Mike so it opens up a lot of stuff for the other guys – me, Adam [Humphries], DeSean [Jackson], O.J. [Howard]. We didn't finish the first drive the way we wanted to, settling for a field goal, but it was a promising start."
Evans caught four passes for 58 yards in an equally brief amount of playing time. Reserve quarterbacks Ryan Fitzpatrick and Ryan Griffin, battling for the top backup spot to Winston, kept the Bucs offense moving, contributing to 206 net yards by halftime. Fitzpatrick scored the only touchdown of the first half on a six-yard scramble in the second quarter. The two reserves each got one drive in the second quarter; in the second half, they continued to alternate possessions.
Griffin completed four of 10 passes for 57 yards. He actually had to leave the game in the middle of one of his drives due to a shoulder injury, and did not return. Three plays before he exited, Griffin took a hit while trying to throw a deep ball to Huff. Fitzpatrick completed six of 13 passes for 45 yards and one interception.
Tampa Bay's defense got a fast start of its own, but almost in reverse fashion. Cincinnati's offense was sharp on its opening drive, moving all the way down to a first down at the Bucs' 13. However, on third-and-two from the five, Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton tried a quick out to Brandon LaFell near the right pylon and Vernon Hargreaves cut in front of the receiver for an acrobatic interception just in front of the goal line.
The Buccaneers hope Hargreaves, their 2016 first-round pick will be more of a big-play presence in his second year thanks to a more aggressive style of play.
"That was a huge play," said Koetter. "He picked that thing off on the one-yard line. We challenged Vernon to take the ball away and he's done it."
Tampa Bay's defense did not make a lot of big plays and gave up a total of 316 yards, 65 of them coming on Cincinnati's first drive. Young defenders Noah Spence and Kendell Beckwith recorded stops in the backfield and second-year cornerback Javien Elliott, trying to secure the nickel back job, had a big pass defensed in the first half. Overall, though, it was Hargreaves who provided the top highlight.
"That's obviously a big play, stopping them from getting points," he said. "I just tried to make a play. They came out, they had tight splits, I figured it may be something outside and I just took a chance and it happened to work out for me."
Tampa Bay's special teams crew had an up-and-down debut. Punter Bryan Anger, re-signed to a long-term deal last December after a great first season in Tampa, dropped two punts inside the Bengals' 10-yard line, with rookie cornerback Jonathan Moxey alertly downing one of them. Wide receiver Josh Huff broke out for a 40-yard kickoff return in the first half, setting up a touchdown drive, but the Bucs' first kickoff return of the day, by Ryan Smith, was stopped at the 12. Veteran kicker Nick Folk made a 45-yard field goal, while second-year kicker Roberto Aguayo chipped in a 20-yarder but also missed a 47-yarder and an extra point try.
On the game's first drive, Winston completed five of his first six passes – the only miscue a drop by Adam Hayward – and drove the Buccaneers from their own six to the Cincinnati one on the game's opening possession. Three of his five completions were to Evans, including a leaping catch on the sideline over a defender and a scrambling third-down throw in the red zone. Facing second-and-goal at the one, Winston tried twice to throw a quick pass to his favorite receiver in the left side of the end zone but both times Evans got tangled up with the Cincinnati defender. The Bucs settled for Roberto Aguayo's 20-yard field goal.
Winston played a bit into the second quarter, as the Bucs were facing a third-and-short when the teams switched ends after the first period. He converted that third down with a scrambling throw to Humphries but a subsequent third-down toss to Evans was off the receivers' hands and the Bucs punted to end their second drive.
Both teams went largely to second-teamers early in the second quarter. Cincinnati tied the game on a 54-yard Randy Bullock field goal following a short drive, though a fine stop by Clinton McDonald helped stall the drive in Bucs territory.
Josh Huff, who could help his roster hopes with an important role on special teams, followed Bullock's field goal with a slicing 40-yard kickoff return to the Bucs' 38. Fitzpatrick replaced Winston and got the Bucs to midfield with the help of a successful fourth-and-one run by second-year running back Peyton Barber. After his own nine-yard scramble, the veteran passer converted another short third down with an outlet pass to fullback Austin Johnson. Charles Sims picked up 13 yards on a nifty draw play, then bounced off a tackle at the line on the next snap for eight more to the Bengals' 13. Three plays later, Fitzpatrick spotted an opening and rather easily ran it in for a six-yard touchdown and a 9-3 lead with three minutes left in the first half. Aguayo's extra point attempt from the right hash hit the right upright and bounced back.
Runs of eight and 13 yards by Bengals rookie Joe Mixon got the ball to midfield and a personal foul by defensive end Noah Spence led to a first down at the Bucs' 35 just past the two-minute warning. A tackle-for-loss by Clinton McDonald and a pass deflection by Javien Elliott forced the Bengals to settle for Jake Elliott's 45-yard field goal.
Dirk Koetter used a timeout near the end of the Bengals' drive to preserve a two-minute-drill opportunity, and let third-year quarterback Ryan Griffin operate with about a minute left. Griffin threw several sharp passes to tight end Alan Cross for a total of 30 yards but the drive ended when he was sacked on a third down near midfield.
Cincinnati got the ball first to start the second half, with both teams digging liberally into their reserves. Running back Tra Carson turned a screen pass into a 23-yard gain to kick-start the drive and get the Bengals across midfield. Third-string quarterback Jeff Driskell just got a sideline pass over the fingertips of Ryan Smith to wide receiver Alex Erickson for 20 yards, setting up Driskell's own 18-yard touchdown run for the Bengals' first lead.
The Buccaneers responded with a 48-yard field goal drive, ending in Nick Folk's 45-yard shot. Fitzgerald got the team into scoring range with sharp passes to Austin Johnson for eight and Freddie Martino for 14 to midfield. Cincinnati linebacker Jordan Evans was flagged for a "defenseless receiver" personal foul hit on Martino on the play, moving the ball to the Bengals' 35, but a potential chain-moving pass went through Martino's hands on the ensuing third down, leading to Folk's field goal.
However, the home team countered with a long touchdown drive ending in Driskell's third-and-goal, eight-yard strike to wide receiver Josh Malone near the end of the third quarter. Driskell ran two more times on the drive for 18 yards, one converting a third down, and a short dumpoff to Erickson found open field for 21 more.
Wide receiver Bernard Reedy snatched a 13-yard pass off the turf to convert a third down near midfield on the Bucs' next drive, and rookie running back Jeremy McNichols took a draw 11 yards into Cincinnati territory. The drive stalled after that, but a perfectly-placed punt by Anger backed the Bengals up, the Bucs' defense forced a quick three-and-out and Reedy returned the ensuing punt 22 yard to the Cincinnati 29.
Unfortunately, the Bucs' scoring opportunity evaporated due to the Buccaneers' first turnover of the game. Fitzpatrick tried to hit wide receiver Derel Walker over the middle on third-and-11 but Walker slipped and the pass went directly to safety Demetrious Cox. After an exchange of punts, the Bengals tacked on three more points with Bullock's 49-yard field goal with three minutes left.
Undrafted rookie Sefo Liufau came in to finish the game, completing four of five passes for 33 yards to drive the Bucs into field goal range. Aguayo came in to try a 47-yarder with just over a minute left but pushed it to the right.