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 kicked off the 2018 preseason in Miami against the Dolphins and led for most of the game before needing a late, two-minute drive to recapture the lead and prevail in the preseason opener.
TWO BIG STATEMENTS
STATEMENT 1: Monken Did A Great Job Calling Plays
There was some big news ahead of the kickoff as Tampa Bay Times Bucs beat writer Rick Stroud reported that offensive coordinator Todd Monken was going to be calling plays in Miami instead of head coach Dirk Koetter. Monken, who carried the dual role of being the offensive coordinator and the wide receivers coach last year, is strictly a walk-around O.C. this year. It was a good move for Koetter to give Monken a shot at calling plays in the preseason game as a trial.
Koetter has struggled a bit as a play-caller and a game-manager in his first two years as a head coach, and it will be interesting to see if he continues to allow Monken to call plays during the preseason – and more importantly – into the regular season. As I’ve previously reported, Koetter enters the 2018 season on the hot seat. If Monken can get the offense clicking in the preseason it would behoove the head coach to allow him to continue in that capacity. It would be tough for Koetter to give up play-calling duties because it’s part of his identity as a coach, but he might have to out of self-preservation as he cannot afford to have back-to-back losing seasons. We’ll see how the rest of the preseason plays out.
The bright spot for Monken’s play-calling came in the red zone as two early drives ended in touchdowns. The Bucs struggled mightily in the red zone last year and Monken lamented at the Bucs’ inability to run the ball, especially near the goal line. A 4-yard Peyton Barber touchdown in the first quarter was followed by a 2-yard TD scamper by rookie Ronald Jones II in the second quarter.
“It felt great,” Barber said. “It was long-awaited. Something I’ve been working on all offseason and the offense was rolling.”
What was even more impressive was the efficiency by Ryan Fitzpatrick, the starting quarterback who played in the first quarter and Jameis Winston, who played the entire second quarter. Fitzpatrick was 6-of-8 for 55 yards and rushed twice for 11 yards. Winston was 11-of-13 for 102 yards. Perhaps more importantly, the Bucs didn’t have a turnover in the first half when players that will comprise the team’s final 53-man roster were in the game.
Even third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin looked solid playing the entire second half. Griffin was 20-of-26 for 179 yards with one touchdown and no interceptions. Griffin’s QB rating of 107.7 was the highest among the QBs, followed by Winston’s 99.4 QB rating and Fitzpatrick’s 93.2 QB mark.
“Ryan Griffin – I thought he was outstanding,” Koetter said. He was 20-of-26 and playing with the third group primarily. I thought Ryan did a really good job, but I thought Fitz and Jameis did fine. Took us right down and scored – both guys. From a quarterback standpoint, I don’t think we missed too many. We didn’t turn it over at quarterback, so I was pleased with all three of those guys.”
STATEMENT 2: Bucs’ Kick Return Game Remains Awful
One of the worst units on the 2017 Tampa Bay Buccaneers was the team’s kick return unit. The Bucs averaged 21.6 yards per kick return, which ranked 17th in the NFL. Tampa Bay only had nine returns of 20 yards or more last year, which was tied for last in the league with Philadelphia and the team’s longest kickoff return last year was 50 yards.
Bobo Wilson had the longest kickoff return for the Bucs, which was a 27-yarder. New running back Dare Ogunbowale averaged 19.7 yards per return on three opportunities, but was hampered by penalties on a couple occasions. Tampa Bay’s first three starting field positions in the second half began at its own 10-, 12- and 16-yard line due to penalties and poor blocking.
This really needs to improve during the preseason or the Bucs would just be better off having touchbacks on every kickoff return to automatically start at the 25-yard line. Starting drives in the shadow of a team’s own goal line typically leads to punts – not touchdowns.
TWO PROBING QUESTIONS
QUESTION 1: Should We Be Worried About Catanzaro?
No. New Bucs kicker Chandler Catanzaro missing his initial extra point was a bit concerning and wasn’t a great first impression, especially considering the fact that Tampa Bay’s kicking situation appears to be cursed with the likes of Connor Barth, Pat Murray, Kyle Brindza, Roberto Aguayo and Nick Folk.
But Catanzaro did make his next two extra points in addition to a 27-yard field goal. Catanzaro missed a key 53-yard field goal in the fourth quarter that would have clinched Tampa Bay’s win. Instead, his miss allowed Miami the chance to come back and take a 24-23 lead late in the game. Keep in mind that field goals longer than 50 yards are tough for any kicker to make.
As fate would have it, Catanzaro would have a chance at redemption as Ryan Griffin drove the Bucs down the field with less than two minutes left and kicked the 26-yard game-winner. Yes, Catanzaro missed four valuable points in Tampa Bay’s preseason opener. But he also accounted for eight points in the form of two field goals and two extra points that were critical in the August victory. Don’t worry about Catanzaro. Yet.
QUESTION 2: Will RoJo Replace Barber As The Starting RB Job?
No. Not anytime soon. There is a sizeable gap between Barber, a three-year veteran, and Jones, the team’s second-round pick in terms of trust from the coaching staff right now. Barber looked strong, quick and decisive in the season opener and appears ready to pick up from where he left off from last year when he was Tampa Bay’s leading rusher. Barber had 21 yards on four carries (5.0 avg.) and a 4-yard touchdown to kick off the scoring for the Bucs.
While Jones did score a 2-yard touchdown in the second quarter, he had a very disappointing debut in red and pewter, rushing for nine yards on eight carries. Jones was expected to bring play-making speed and acceleration to Tampa Bay, but that failed to materialize on Thursday night. Jones’ longest carry of the night was five yards. That means that he only had four yards on his other seven carries.
Jones has impressed in training camp, but looked a little tentative on Thursday night in his first NFL game. That’s understandable. But it should be noted that Jones has struggled to catch the ball during the offseason and in camp, and dropped a third down pass that hit him right in the hands on his first NFL snap, which was disappointing.
TWO BOLD PREDICTIONS
PREDICTION 1: I Think O’Connor Makes The Team Over Gholston
As we’ve previously reported on PewterReport.com, defensive end Will Gholston has really struggled in training camp. Despite losing 20 pounds this offseason and being in better shape, Gholston has not show much improvement as a pass rusher.
Gholston, a former starter, was playing into the second half with third team, as did fellow defensive end Patrick O’Connor. This was due to the fact that backup defensive tackles Vita Vea (calf) and Mitch Unrein (concussion) didn’t play against the Dolphins and the Bucs needed both Gholston and O’Connor to see some snaps inside at defensive tackle.
O’Connor has a bit more twitch and explosiveness than Gholston does, and despite the $6.5 million worth of dead cap money Gholston would leave if the Bucs traded or cut him, Tampa Bay would be spending that money regardless – either on the sixth-year defensive end that is limited athletically or in dead cap money. The roster spot itself might be more valuable and if O’Connor, who had two tackles, half a sack and a pass breakup against the Dolphins, continues to impress this could be a big roster upset. O’Connor did suffer an injury in the fourth quarter in Miami that could change this production if it winds up being serious.
PREDICTION 2: Whitehead Replaces Conte At SS At Some Point
Bucs cornerback Carlton Davis, who had five tackles and two pass breakups in his NFL debut, wasn’t the only rookie defender who shined in Miami. Strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who was Tampa Bay’s fourth-round draft pick, nearly concussed himself on his first tackle, but cleared the concussion protocol and that was huge for the Bucs defense as his play really stood out throughout the game.
Whitehead had two bone-jarring tackles, in addition to two great pass breakups. Unfortunately Dolphins quarterback Bryce Petty was able to throw a perfect two-point conversion pass over Whitehead to give the Dolphins a brief 24-23 lead late in the fourth quarter, but that was the rookie’s only gaffe – and he still had good coverage on the play.
Chris Conte will likely start the season at strong safety due to his experience playing in the NFL and in Mike Smith’s defense, but that won’t last all season. The more experience Whitehead gets the more ground he’ll gain on Conte. Expect Whitehead to take over as the starting strong safety at some point during the season. He’s too much of a playmaker to stay on the sidelines.
“This was really the first look – we just have seen too much of Whitehead,” Koetter said. “I thought he did a really good job.”