With just three more chances before the real bullets fly in the regular season opener against Detroit on September 11, many unanswered questions remain. Thursday night’s preseason home opener should provide some answers heading into the upcoming season. PewterReport.com presents a few things to look for as Tampa Bay plays its second preseason game against the New England Patriots on Thursday night at Raymond James Stadium.
Tackling the “Patriot Way”
Let’s face it. The New England Patriots are unstoppable. In fact, with their offseason acquisitions, let's go ahead and hand them the Lombardi Trophy now. Why bother to play the season? Okay, just kidding. A little.
There is no doubt New England head coach Bill Belichick has a unique and successful way of doing things. Raheem Morris called it the “Patriot Way.” So we at PewterReport.com are eager to see how Tampa Bay will fare against New England, who, based on its 47-12 win over the Jacksonville Jaguars last week, present a much more formidable challenge than the Chiefs did Friday night at Kansas City.
No one is expecting Tom Brady and the first team offense to play more than a couple of series Thursday night. But in those few snaps that they do, how will the Buccaneers’ front four handle New England's offensive line? How will linebackers Mason Foster, Quincy Black and Geno Hayes handle the receivers, tight ends, or even Wes Welker running the quick crosses Belichick and offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien like to run? Will the secondary, who will be minus cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis, be able to handle the multiple shifts and formations they will see?
Brady doesn’t spend a lot of time in the pocket on deep drops, meaning the success may not be measured in the number of sacks. Defensive awareness and being in position will be the thing to really look for from the Bucs defense and how many three-and-outs it can create. The Buccaneers aren’t going to spend the time studying an opponent in preseason the way they will do in the regular season. But in practice this week, they ran scout cards giving their starters a basic look at New England’s formations, much more than they did before facing Kansas City. Morris commented on taking on a Belichick-led team last Tuesday in his afternoon press conference.
“Bill Belichick has a great football team that plays hard and plays fast,” Morris said. “You hate to say it doesn’t matter who plays for them, but it really doesn’t. They have the ‘Patriot Way’. They designed it. They have a brand name. And I look forward to them coming to our house and playing us.”
While no coach is going to say a preseason game is very much of a deal, we believe the Buccaneers’ coaches and the players do see this game as somewhat of a measuring stick.
Will Lee and Dotson stop racing to see which lineman can commit the most penalties?
Perhaps we have been a little harsh on right tackle James Lee and left tackle Demar Dotson, but I doubt we are any more harsh than Pat Morris was Saturday morning reviewing the Kansas City film. The two tackles combined for five penalties and missed assignments that led to a sack and a couple of QB pressures, but fellow tackle Donald Penn stood up for them in his exclusive Training Camp Diary with Scott Reynolds this week.
“The first thing we did [when we returned to practice] is work on some drills that were giving [offensive tackles] Demar Dotson and James Lee problems,” Penn said. “That’s the first thing we did at practice. We’re working on stuff and hopefully it carries over and we get things fixed. “Dotson had a bit of a rough night. It’s tough, but that’s part of football. When you get your opportunity, you’ve got to grasp it. Dotson’s been having a good camp. Dot’s still young. This is his third year playing football – ever. He’s still learning and for him only being in his third year in, he looks dang good. I think with Dot it’s going to take some time. We’re working with him and he’s working hard. He’s putting in extra work after practice and I think it’s going to carry over.”
Coming into training camp the job for right tackle seemed to be wide open, as Jeremy Trueblood was an unrestricted free agent. Lee showed flashes in 2010 of what he is capable of when he started nine games in place of Trueblood, who was injured. But in the preseason opener at Kansas City going against second-teamers, Lee looked nothing like the player we saw at the end of last season.
Dotson is a former basketball player at Southern Miss, and seeing him up close in practice it is obvious he doesn’t have the prototypical offensive tackle frame as he is long and lanky and doesn't have a big lower body that can help him anchor against defensive ends and pass-rushing linebackers. Still, the Buccaneers love his athleticism, footwork and long arms, although it may not be best suited for the blocking style the Buccaneers are employing this season as they get away from the zone blocking scheme and go towards more of a man-power attack.
Both tackles will be under the microscope Thursday night and the remainder of the preseason, as right now they are only one snap away from being starters that are entrusted to protect franchise quarterback Josh Freeman.
How will Tampa Bay's "GMC" drive the first time out of the garage?
Last year’s first-round draft pick, three-technique defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, will see his first playing time Thursday night against New England after sitting out last week’s win at Kansas City, nursing a sore rotator cuff. The big man, who was one of the first players to report to camp the first days players were allowed in, appears to be a different person this year.
Confident, outspoken, and taking on a leadership role with the defense, the former Sooner is one of the biggest – if not the biggest – factor in whether the Buccaneers will have a shot at a division title. Through hard work this offseason, McCoy has totally transformed his body in dropping 10 pounds of fat and checking in at a lean, mean and sculpted 300 pounds this year. The player known as "GMC" will get the chance to show another opponent what he's been showing Tampa Bay's offensive line all during training camp – that he is a force to be reckoned with.
Legendary Bucs defensive tackle Warren Sapp who stopped by training camp last week and said the key to being successful on defense this year was the Bucs being strong up the middle, singling out McCoy as one of those key components. McCoy, who is one of the most likeable guys on the squad, has said and done all the right things so far. Now McCoy must prove it between the painted lines during the preseason and on Sundays.
Now hiring! Defensive backs needed!
It may be a bit of a stretch in theory, but as Bucs secondary coach Jimmy Lake told PewterReport.com this week, “When a talented guy like that is on the street with no job and we’ve got an opportunity to pick him up, we’re going to pick him up.”
Lake was talking about the latest Buccaneers addition, cornerback Ashton Youboty, who earlier this week was added to an already – at least on paper – crowded defensive backfield. Still, there are several questions to answer with key injuries to cornerbacks Aqib Talib and Myron Lewis, and the uncertainty of free safety Tanard Jackson’s possible return in late September. And let’s not forget that rookie safety Ahmad Black has a high ankle sprain that will keep him off the field Thursday night.
Morris and Lake love to collect defensive backs, and that is a good thing, especially with the current nicked-up situation in the secondary. This is giving guys like Larry Asante, Vince Anderson, Elbert Mack, Anthony Gaitor and D.J. Johnson a great opportunity to showcase their talents, and will make cut down day an even more difficult time for Morris and Lake.
Gaitor, a seventh-round pick in 2011, looks like a safe bet to make the squad; as it seems every day in camp the former Florida International player came up with a big play. His mental aptitude is also allowing Lake to teach him two positions – outside cornerback and slot corner – making him even a more valuable component. Looking back at Gaitor in his senior season at FIU, he shut down several high profile receivers, including Alabama's Julio Jones, Pitt's Jonathan Baldwin and Troy's Jerrel Jernigan, and seemed to play his best when facing the tougher competition. He came up with a key sack on a nickel corner blitz at Kansas City last Friday night.
Johnson got a lot of playing time in Kansas City and did a decent job but still was beaten a few times although the receiver and quarterback failed to hook up, making things look better on paper.
Youboty [5-foot 11, 189-pounds], even as a late addition, has a legitimate shot to make the squad as both Lake and Morris spoke highly of the former Buffalo Bill. Youboty (one of the most awesome names in the league) is a tall, lanky type corner in the mold of Lewis and Talib, as pointed out by Morris in his press conference last Monday. Lake scouted Youboty out of Ohio State and liked what he saw at the time.
“I’m very familiar with him. I [evaluated] him when he was coming out of college in 2006,” Lake said. “I liked him coming out of Ohio State and I watched him from afar through his pro career.”
Who is Blount's backup?
After rushing for 1,000 yards last year, LeGarrette Blount clearly has the first team running back position sewn up. The second-year former Oregon star burst on to the scene with a 1,007-yard season in 2010 and has had a solid camp, improving his blitz pickups and – just as importantly – his hands. Earnest Graham was thought to have somewhat inherited the number two halfback spot, but an Achilles injury to Erik Lorig early in camp put Graham back in the mix at fullback. With his opportunity to shine, Kregg Lumpkin has seen a lot of second-team work in camp and performed well. Steady, dependable, and solid, but not flashy, is how to describe both Graham and Lumpkin.
The wild card in the group is USC rookie Allen Bradford. Not speedy by most football standards, Bradford runs aggressive with an attitude and despite gaining just 10 yards in last week’s game against Kansas City. Both Mossis Madu and Armando Allen Jr. have shown flashes of speed in training camp, but they aren’t getting as many reps as Bradford. Allen and Madu both provide a different running style than Blount, Graham, Lumpkin and Bradford, and that may be appealing to the staff. But one of them must have a standout game over the next three preseason contests to have a chance to make the roster.
Preseason games can be difficult to watch at times, especially in the second half, but most battles for roster spots start to take place as folks begin heading to the parking lots near the end of the third quarter. Thursday night will be another under the lights audition and those players on the bubble must seize their chances when given.