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. Tampa Bay’s backups got their back ends kicked by Tennessee, 34-3, in the second preseason game. Several players hurt their chances of making the roster with poor play, while only a few helped there cause with a good performance against the Titans.

2 BIG STATEMENTS

STATEMENT 1. Howard Has An Ugly Night

The Bucs rested the vast majority of their starters in the second preseason game, but tight end O.J. Howard, who used to be a starter, suited up and played against the Titans. Howard is returning from a surgically repaired Achilles injury and needed to play to shake off some rust.

And Howard has plenty of rust.

And Howard needs to play a lot more in the third and final preseason game next week, too.

Howard dropped two long, perfectly thrown passes from Blaine Gabbert in the first quarter.

Bucs TE O.J. Howard

Bucs TE O.J. Howard – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“Like every game, you always go out there to win but I was very disappointed in the start again,” Bucs head coach Bruce Arians said. “Dropped passes – we threw the ball in this game because we ran so much during the week. I just wanted to evaluate quarterbacks and offensive linemen in the passing game more than I did the running game. … Again, too many dropped passes to start ball games – that kills drives.”

Arians was clearly talking about Howard’s two big drops in the first quarter.

Howard did redeem himself for a minute in the second quarter, catching a 9-yard pass from Ryan Griffin. But then he gave up a sack just a few plays later to linebacker David Long Jr. The rangy tight end finished the game with three catches for 24 yards.

Arians was asked if he was concerned about Howard’s drops after the game.

“Not concerning because he came back and caught the ball on some grimier ones, but those were easy ones,” Arians said. “He’s made those in practice and there’s a time when you have to switch gloves when they get too wet. I think the one just squirted through his hands, but after that he caught everything. It’s not concerning.”

I think that Arians is doing his best job to try not to shatter Howard’s confidence. Howard has dropped plenty of passes in practice and his two drops against the Titans didn’t help.

Those drops won’t cause the team to give up on Howard. He’ll make the roster, but he could find himself as the No. 3 tight end behind Rob Gronkowski and Cameron Brate if he’s not more sure-handed.

The real danger for Howard, who is not a great blocker, is that the Bucs may not re-sign him after this year. The Bucs picked up the fifth-year option of their first-round pick from 2017, but that doesn’t mean they have to keep him after this season.

“O.J. stays on the JUGS machine, so that’s not helping him,” Arians said. “The JUGS is just more confidence building for when you’re standing still and catching a ball. It’s not what you’re doing when you are playing, it’s running and catching a ball. You just have to make the plays. Like I said, if it was Mike [Evans], Chris [Godwin], [Antonio Brown] then I would worry about it. O.J’s shaking off a hell of a lot of rust.”

STATEMENT 2. Bucs Reserve D-Line Was Outstanding

Looking for a silver lining in Tampa Bay’s 34-3 loss to Tennessee? It was clearly the play of the Bucs’ reserve defensive line.

The defensive line, including the outside linebackers, was superb against the Titans. Tampa Bay recorded two first half sacks from defensive lineman Pat O’Connor and outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. Both were incredibly disruptive and had three tackles by halftime.

Bucs OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka

Bucs OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Tryon-Shoyinka is already a force, and is going to be a special player in Tampa Bay for years to come. The Bucs’ first-round pick showed off an array of moves from a dip-and-rip, a long arm and a bull rush. Tryon-Shoyinka got his first official sack of the preseason after being robbed last week against Cincinnati on a bad call.

“He’s playing really good, really hard,” Arians said. “He’s made a couple mistakes but he’s getting better.”

Nose tackle Rakeem Nunez-Roches and defensive tackle Khalil Davis also played really well up front for the Bucs. Both were disruptive and notched a tackle. Tampa Bay held Tennessee to 41 yards rushing on 14 carries in the first half. Jeremy McNichols, the Titans’ starter, was held to minus-9 yards on five carries. Mekhi Sargent ripped through the defense for 78 yards on 16 carries – mostly after Tryon, O’Connor, Nunez-Roches and Davis departed.

“I think they are controlling the line of scrimmage really, really well,” Arians said at halftime. “They stuffed the run until we let that one out and missed two tackles. They were out there too long.”

Arians was alluding to the fact that the Bucs offense was putrid in the first half, gaining just 80 yards and scoring only three points. Tampa Bay’s offense was 1-of-8 on third downs.

The Titans had a 13-3 lead at halftime, but because of the stellar play by the Bucs defensive front, Tennessee was also held to 1-of-8 on third downs in the first half.

Bucs DE Pat O'Connor and the D-line

Bucs DE Pat O’Connor and the D-line – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

After the game, Arians was asked if any of the Bucs reserves made the 53-man roster with a good performance on Saturday night.

“Yeah, I mean, there’s one or two guys,” Arians said at halftime. “Grant [Stuard] made a couple of plays. He might have made it. I know Pat made it in this game because he just did it. Whether Khalil has enough on tape, there are guys fighting for jobs that showed up in this game. The scoreboard doesn’t show it, but I’m not looking at the score – I’m looking at individuals.”

Stuard, the team’s seventh-round pick and Mr. Irrelevant this year, finished the game with a team-high six tackles and a sack.

2 PROBING QUESTIONS

QUESTION 1: Is Darden Losing Ground To Johnson On The Depth Chart?

Yes. Jaelon Darden, the team’s fourth-round pick, has struggled with some drops in practice and hasn’t made a big impact in either preseason game. Against Tennessee, Darden fumbled on his second punt return in the first quarter, but recovered the ball. Then looked like he had the first down after a 12-yard catch on third-and-13.

Bucs WR-PR Jaelon Darden

Bucs WR-PR Jaelon Darden – Photo by: USA Today

Tyler Johnson looks like the far more polished and effective receiver. Johnson finished with two catches for 21 yards as a starter on Saturday night. While Darden clearly had some rookie jitters, the game didn’t look too big for Johnson, last year’s fifth-round pick. The Minnesota product had 12 catches for 169 yards (14.1 avg.) and two touchdowns during his rookie season and added two receptions for 31 yards in the postseason.

With Mike Evans and Chris Godwin as the starters and Antonio Brown the No. 3 wide receiver, it looks like Johnson will start the season as the No. 5 receiver behind Scotty Miller and ahead of Darden. Johnson needs to do more on special teams to insure that he’ll dress on game days, though.

Meanwhile, Darden hasn’t shown enough on special teams as a punt and kick returner to completely wrestle that job away from Jaydon Mickens yet. Saturday night’s fumble on his punt return while trying to do too much didn’t help.

QUESTION 2: What Was The Most Disappointing Aspect Of The Bucs’ Loss?

The choices are – poor tackling (again), third down conversions (again), kick and punt coverage (again), and pathetic running game (again). I’m going to go with the pathetic running game – even though Arians admits that Tampa Bay didn’t try to establish much of a ground game against Tennessee.

“I just wanted to evaluate quarterbacks and offensive linemen in the passing game more than I did the running game,” Arians said. “There wasn’t much emphasis on the running game in this one.”

While it wasn’t an emphasis, the Bucs finished with 17 yards rushing on 15 carries led by Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who had 18 yards on nine carries (2.0 avg.). Last week against Cincinnati, Tampa Bay rushed for just 29 yards on 17 carries (1.7 avg.). Vaughn had 27 yards and a touchdown on 11 carries (2.5 avg.) versus the Bengals.

Bucs RB Ke'Shawn Vaughn

Bucs RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn – Photo by: USA Today

Would he perform better with a better supporting cast upfront? Probably. Vaughn averaged 4.0 yards per carry last year as a rookie, but he certainly hasn’t impressed this preseason. We haven’t seen any burst or acceleration into the hole, nor have we seen much power to push the pile.

It will be interesting to see how the running game fares with the starters playing the first half next Saturday in Houston. The Bucs haven’t done a great job of running the ball in practice this summer, largely due to the fact that Tampa Bay has the league’s top rushing defense.

The Bucs are and will always be a pass-first team. But it’s still important to have a competent ground game to keep the team in manageable third downs and to convert third-and-short situations, as well as be a factor around the goal line. Tampa Bay’s duo run game is fairly predictable, especially given the personnel groupings the team deploys if it wants to run the ball.

Let’s see if the starting offensive line and tight ends can do a better job of opening up holes for Ronald Jones II and Leonard Fournette against the Texans. And let’s see Jones and Fournette come out of that game averaging at least 4.0 yards per carry.

2 BOLD PREDICTIONS

PREDICTION 1: Tampa Bay Starters Will Shine In Houston

The Bucs are 0-2 in the preseason, and it hasn’t been pretty. But don’t worry. It was Tampa Bay’s backups that led to the team’s winless record. The starters have only played six snaps in August, but that will change in Houston as the starters are expected to play at least a half.

The Texans are clearly the worst team in the NFL, but former Bucs head coach Lovie Smith is the defensive coordinator. He’ll certainly want to stick to the team that fired him after two awful seasons in January of 2016. Tom Brady and Co. better be ready – and I think they will be.

PREDICTION 2: Hudson Makes The Team Over McElroy As TE4

Bucs TE Tanner Hudson

Bucs TE Tanner Hudson – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Tanner Hudson greatly helped his chances of earning the fourth tight end spot by playing Saturday night against the Titans – and playing well. Hudson didn’t practice during the week due to a sprained wrist he suffered in the preseason opener against Cincinnati, but shook off that injury and played against Tennessee.

Hudson gets points for toughness – mental and physical – for being a gamer, and to no one’s surprise he led the Bucs with six catches for 74 yards. This comes on the heels of catching five passes for 50 yards against the Bengals. Yes, Hudson supposedly fumbled after a 26-yard catch and that led to a Titans scoop-and-score, but replays showed Hudson to be down by contact instead. That’s what Arians believes and that’s all that matters.

Codey McElroy played more snaps than Hudson did – 35 to 17 – but his lone target bounced off his hands in the fourth quarter and turned into an interception. Meanwhile, Hudson made the most of his snaps, and if the team keeps four tight ends it will likely be him.

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About the Author: Scott Reynolds

Scott Reynolds is in his 25th year of covering the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as the vice president, publisher and senior Bucs beat writer for PewterReport.com. Author of the popular SR's Fab 5 column on Fridays, Reynolds oversees web development and forges marketing partnerships for PewterReport.com in addition to his editorial duties. A graduate of Kansas State University in 1995, Reynolds spent six years giving back to the community as the defensive line coach for his sons' Pop Warner team, the South Pasco Predators. Reynolds can be reached at: sr@pewterreport.com
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drdneast
5 months ago

“Bounced” off of McElroy’s hands? Yes, I guess it did after he had to leap for the overthrown pass from Trask. You guys really are something with your Gator glasses on.

rrsrq
5 months ago

I’m confused about OJ Howard’s first “drop”, did not he have to reach back because the ball was on his helmet as he ran forward (see pic above)

PewterPose
5 months ago

Drafting a stud punt/kickoff returner in the 2nd round would have helped this team way more than a project QB. Darden has never been a returner and lacks all the instincts. Trask is years away from starting.
Also, I don’t think Howard is on this team next year.

Horse
5 months ago

Very good analysis Scott. Howard is in trouble in being the 4th TE. He’s behind where he should be and it’s mental, not physical. We have seen this before on a couple other TE’s from our past. We knew that the 2021 team was very good and Howard wasn’t part of the active roster by then. We have a very good team and we knew, if just a couple players could help us in 2021, then we would be great. Well we’ve got that. From now on, it’s all mental and the will to win no matter the obstacles. One… Read more »