It’s time for PewterReport.com’s 2-Point Conversion post-game column, which features two statements, two questions and two predictions based on the latest Bucs game. The Bucs had another come-from-behind victory to beat the visiting Cleveland Browns, 13-12, to improve to 2-1 on the preseason. Once again it was third-string QB Ryan Griffin and rookie kicker Matt Gay that won the game in the end, while the Bucs defense was dominant against a Browns offense that was under-manned with the exception of quarterback Baker Mayfield.
2 BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Bucs Defense Shows Big Improvement
If there is one thing this August that has looked night day from a year ago in Tampa Bay’s it’s the Bucs’ new defense. Todd Bowles, who is in his second stint as Bruce Arians’ defensive coordinator is applying more pressure with his front seven and having the team’s defensive backs play tighter in coverage than the soft Quarters-based scheme Mike Smith deployed over the last two and a half years in Tampa Bay.
While it wasn’t a perfect showing against the visiting Cleveland Browns in the Bucs’ 13-12 come-from-behind-win, Bowles’ defense held quarterback Baker Mayfield to just 12-of-26 passing for 72 yards and a dismal 30.6 QB rating. Mayfield was sacked just once – by defensive lineman Rakeem Nunez-Roches – but he should have been dropped by Ndamukong Suh and Carl Nassib. Mayfield showed great toughness to elude those sacks. Nunez-Roches added another sack in the second half to lead the team with two.
The new and improved starting Bucs defense held the Browns offense to just 75 yards in the first half, but more importantly held Cleveland to just three field goals. It was far from perfect, but the Browns were held to 141 yards of total offense and they converted just 2-of-14 (14 percent) on third down.
Last year, Tampa Bay’s defense surrendered way too many touchdowns, especially in the red zone. So what the Bucs starting defense has been able to do in terms of limiting yards and points in the preseason has been impressive. Now what Tampa Bay’s defense needs to go to the next level is more splash plays – sacks, interceptions, forced fumbles and fumble recoveries.
STATEMENT 2: Griffin Is Now QB2
Well, Ryan Griffin is making the team. There is no backup quarterback controversy due to the fact that Blaine Gabbert seriously injured his left shoulder after scrambling for a first down on the first series of the third quarter and immediately headed to the locker room. Griffin entered the game and finished the drive, which resulted in a field goal.
On the next drive Griffin, who has been one of the most productive quarterbacks in the NFL this preseason, led the Bucs on a nine-play, 69-yard scoring drive that culminated in a 20-yard touchdown pass to tight end Jordan Leggett to give Tampa Bay a 10-9 lead. When the Browns kicked a field goal with 7:32 left to go up by two points, Griffin led the Bucs to another scoring drive with rookie Matt Gay kicking his second game-winner in as many weeks – this time from 21 yards.
“I’m more than comfortable – more than comfortable,” Arians said of having to play Griffin if necessary in the regular season. “He’s proven with some of the guys he is playing with – directing them; [he’s] poised. He’s moved our team up and down the field. Just like he did again tonight.”
Griffin completed 11-of-17 passes for 121 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions against Cleveland, and has 51-of-81 passes (62.9 percent) for 652 yards with three touchdowns and no interceptions through three preseason games. Because of Gabbert’s injury, which might not be that serious since it’s a dislocation of his non-throwing shoulder, Griffin might not play in Thursday’s preseason finale so that he’s healthy heading into the San Francisco game.
Don’t be surprised if the Bucs re-sign Vincent Testaverde and have him play all four quarters at Dallas.
2 PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: What Does The Bucs Offense Look Like Without Evans?
We found out tonight – it’s scary bad. Tampa Bay was without Mike Evans, its top target, who sat out the third preseason game with a quad injury. Without Evans, Bucs quarterback Jameis Winston looked lost and only seemed to have a connection with reliable receiver Chris Godwin.
There has been talk that Chris Godwin is so good that he would be a No. 1 wide receiver on other teams, but obviously he’s a No. 2 behind Mike Evans in Tampa Bay. Well, without Evans on Friday Godwin stepped up in a big way, catching four passes for 52 yards in the first half.
“It is just really something we work on at practice,” Godwin said of his connection with Winston. “That is all we really have to do, don’t have to go out there and try and do anything spectacular, nothing over the top. We just have to play like we have been practicing and have everything fall into place for us.”
It’s clear that in his third year, Godwin is polished enough to take on a lead receiver role if necessary. Evans has proved to be quite healthy during his first five years of his NFL career and the Bucs certainly hope that continues. But if Evans is out for any period of time, Godwin has shown that he can take over for Winston. Where Evans would be missed is down the field. Evans is still the best deep threat on the Bucs, as Winston failed to connect with Breshad Perriman on three deep shots in the first half of the Cleveland game.
The problem for the Bucs’ starting offense on Friday night – aside from the starting offensive line surrendering five sacks – was that Godwin didn’t have any help. Tight end O.J. Howard only had one catch for four yards and Perriman had just two catches for 15 yards.
QUESTION 2: Why Do They Play The Preseason Games?
Because it is the preseason games that separate the practice players from the gamers. Cornerback Sean Murphy-Bunting, the team’s second-round pick, was a player that was gaining a lot of momentum and generating a lot of buzz in shorts during the OTAs and mini-camp. Even once the pads came on in training camp, Murphy-Bunting was looking good and challenging for the nickel cornerback job.
But then the Pittsburgh game came and Murphy-Bunting struggled and hasn’t been the same player since – in practice or games. Murphy-Bunting was called for a special teams penalty, a pass interference penalty and gave up a touchdown against the Steelers. After not making a play against Miami in the second preseason game, Murphy-Bunting was largely invisible again versus Cleveland on Friday night.
M.J. Stewart hasn’t been perfect, but he’s made some plays and appears to have a firm grip on the nickel cornerback job heading into Week 1. Murphy-Bunting did have a pass breakup on the final play of the game, so maybe that will spark a resurgence in his play that will carry over to next week’s preseason finale at Dallas.
2 BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: Bucs Offensive Line Will Rebound
The Bucs’ starting offensive line looked awful in surrendering five sacks and not generating much push in the ground game against the Browns’ front seven. Tampa Bay head coach Bruce Arians said the linemen “got their asses kicked,” and he’s right. But he isn’t worried about the line moving forward because the starters played well in the first two preseason games and did a good job in practice in training camp. Quarterback Jameis Winston isn’t worried, either, and said that in his post-game press conference.
Right guard Alex Cappa looked the shakiest of the linemen, surrendering two sacks against veteran Olivier Vernon. Cappa had looked solid in the two previous games and will learn from this one as he’s entering his first year as an NFL starter.
The main difference between the offensive line this year and last year is that Arians and offensive line coaches Harold Goodwin and Joe Gilbert will hold the linemen accountable and not tolerate another performance like that. The Bucs don’t have many options in terms of replacements outside of the versatile Earl Watford and Caleb Benenoch, who is exclusively a backup right tackle. But the guess here is that the O-line gets chewed out by Arians, Goodwin and Gilbert in a way it never has before when the team watches the film on Saturday morning, and that we see a much better showing against San Francisco in Week 1.
PREDICTION 2: Bucs Preseason Finale Will Be Awful
Tampa Bay’s preseason finale at Dallas on Thursday night might be unwatchable. As of right now, the Bucs don’t plan on playing either healthy quarterback – Winston or Griffin – and Gabbert certainly won’t be able to go. That means they’ll likely have to re-sign Testaverde, who barely knows the offense and isn’t a good passer, so that the Bucs offense can function. It’s a real shame that Nick Fitzgerald has missed all of camp and the preseason with a hamstring strain. That was the costliest beach volleyball game Fitzgerald will ever play because he would have started the entire fourth preseason game if he were healthy.
What really hurts is the evaluation process of the Bucs wide receivers as the team is still trying to find a fourth and fifth option on the depth chart. Bobo Wilson might be in the driver’s seat with Justin Watson, Scotty Miller, Anthony Johnson and newcomer Emanuel Hall vying for the final spot.
And because the Bucs will likely rest Peyton Barber, Ronald Jones II, Dare Ogunbowale and perhaps Andre Ellington, rookie Bruce Anderson will likely get 20-30 touches and become a tackling dummy on Thursday. Or a piñata.
If you choose not to watch the preseason finale, you can always turn to PewterReport.com. We have to watch it – so we’ve got you covered.