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FAB 1. The Bucs Could’ve Used A Preseason

Friday, August 14 should have seen the Tampa Bay Buccaneers kick off their 2020 preseason in Pittsburgh against the Steelers. But thanks to COVID-19, that won’t happen as the NFL has cancelled the entire preseason due to the pandemic.

No preseason, no problem – right?

Wrong.

Let’s face it. Not many of us like the NFL preseason, but it’s a necessary evil for the league.

Most fans don’t care for it because teams charge full price admission for somewhat meaningless exhibition games. Most media members don’t care for it because the games are often played on a Thursday, Friday or Saturday night – and are rather meaningless and often boring.

Most veteran NFL players don’t like the preseason games either. They either don’t want to play in meaningless (I’m using that word an awful lot, right?) games at all due to the risk of injury, or they do want to play more than just a series or two due to their competitive nature and to get into rhythm for the regular season.

I think the only people who actually like the preseason are undrafted free agents and fringe players trying to make the roster and the personnel scouts and coaches that get to make the call on the 53-man roster. How players play under the lights matters.

Just ask guys like Kenny Bell, a former fifth-round wide receiver in 2015, who lit it up in shorts during his rookie mini-camp and OTAs and generated all sorts of buzz, but wilted under the pressure when the preseason games came around and the pads came on.

Well, there won’t be a preseason this year, as the NFL and the NFL Players Association nixed it over COVID-19 concerns. I will admit that I have love-hate relationship with the exhibition games in August. I don’t enjoy the night games – and the Tampa thunderstorms that often delay these contests. Nor do I enjoy what is often sloppy play in the preseason.

But I do like seeing some underdogs emerge in the preseason. Over a decade ago it was undrafted free agent right tackle Demar Dotson. Five years ago it was undrafted free agent wide receiver Adam Humphries. Last preseason it was third-string quarterback Ryan Griffin, who led the NFL in passing last August, and tight end Tanner Hudson, a former undrafted free agent, who led the league in preseason receptions, yards and touchdown catches.

We won’t get to see any undrafted free agents make the 53-man roster this year with a clutch performance in the dreaded preseason finale, which is usually some pretty bad football.

Bucs QB Ryan Griffin - Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Bucs QB Ryan Griffin – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

No, thanks to the coronavirus, 2020 is all about veterans – not rookies. In fact, Tampa Bay will spend the majority of its reps in training camp focused on preparing the top 22 – the 11 starters on both offense and defense – for New Orleans rather than worrying about which reserve players will comprise spots 47-53 on the depth chart.

Without a preseason, the Bucs and all other NFL teams will be forced to do what college does, which is to just dive right in to the regular season. While a lot of college football powerhouse programs try to schedule some FCS cupcakes or lesser FBS schools right off the bat to serve as an early season tune-up before conference play, some teams get the draw for some early marquee match-ups during the opening weekend of college football.

Sometimes those games are exciting, but usually those games can underwhelm due to sloppy play. Will that be the case for Tampa Bay as it travels to New Orleans in what is one of the league’s marquee match-ups in the season opener?

We’ll find out on September 13 when the Bucs travel to an empty Superdome to try to knock off the two-time defending NFC South champion Saints.

As Tampa Bay prepares for that colossal Week 1 showdown against Drew Brees and a New Orleans team that is coming off back-to-back 13-3 records, the Bucs will miss those preseason tune-up games this year for a multitude of reasons. Let’s take a look.

Brady Getting Used To Arians’ Offense

Arians continues to heap praise on new quarterback Tom Brady for picking up the offense so quickly. Brady taking the time to organize voluntary workouts this summer at Berkeley Prep in Tampa also helped him grasp the terminology and form a bond and chemistry with his new offensive weapons and center Ryan Jensen.

Brady is a pro’s pro, who has 20 years worth of experience in the league – albeit in pretty much one system in New England. The biggest challenges for Brady to overcome in Arians’ vertical passing game will be hanging in the pocket a little longer than he’s used to in order to let deeper routes develop, and the option routes that force receivers and tight ends to read the defense and adjust their routes accordingly on the fly.

Bucs QB Tom Brady

Bucs QB Tom Brady – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

Brady must be in sync with his weapons and read the defense the same way or an errant throw that could be intercepted could be the result. Jameis Winston experienced at least three interceptions – two at Tennessee and one against Houston – last year when he and his receivers weren’t on the same page on option routes.

Having a handful of series in a few preseason games could have helped Brady and his targets practice those routes, and if a few passes wind up being intercepted it doesn’t matter because the contests in August are exhibition games. Arians has all the confidence in the world in the future Hall of Fame quarterback, but don’t be surprised if an untimely interception or two occurs early in the season at New Orleans or at home against Carolina in Week 2 without any tune-up games.

“Yeah, he’s (Brady) probably the least of my worries right now,” Arians said. “He’s where he needs to be. We need to get more live reps. This game’s a blocking and tackling game. We have 14 days to block and tackle. Is that enough? No, and I hate tackling ourselves. We don’t want to low block ourselves, but we got to be ready to play a game.

“I think that’s the biggest disadvantage is not being in pads and not playing fast. Tom will get all his fast snaps in shorts starting tomorrow, and that will help, but it’s a blocking and tackling game – it’s a physical game, especially in special teams with guys making the team in that area. To me, that’s the hardest part.”

Bucs’ Rookies Getting Acclimated To The NFL

Will the Bucs actually consider starting rookie right tackle Tristan Wirfs in the season opener where he would go head-to-head with New Orleans’ five-time Pro Bowl defensive end Cameron Jordan, who had 15.5 sacks last year? Wirfs, the team’s first-round pick, will have just 14 padded practices to prepare for his rookie season without the benefit of a rookie mini-camp, any OTAs, the mandatory mini-camp or the preseason.

It seems crazy to think Wirfs could hold his own against a crafty veteran like Jordan in his first NFL action. The Bucs would be wise to start veteran newcomer Joe Haeg in Week 1 and maybe give Wirfs a series or two to gain some experience and get his feet wet without potentially losing any confidence by having to play against Jordan for 60 snaps or more.

Arians said that the Bucs won’t hesitate to play Haeg if they feel it’s necessary.

Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs

Bucs RT Tristan Wirfs – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“That’s not a problem – we know what Joe is,” Arians said. “We’ve got film on Joe. He’s got a resume. Tristan, we’ll see in pads. If he’s not ready, we’ll play Joe. It’s not a big deal. We’re gonna play the guys that are most ready to play that ball game at every position.”

If Wirfs had seen action in three preseason games he would be better suited to take on Jordan and perhaps be ready to start in Week 1. The same could be said for safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., Tampa Bay’s second-round draft pick, who seems poised to start as a rookie – just not in Week 1.

Winfield was drafted for his high football I.Q. and his penchant for creating turnovers just as much as his athleticism. The Bucs only produced two interceptions from the safety positions in 16 games last year, and Winfield had seven of his 10 career picks last year at Minnesota.

But do the Bucs want to trot him out in the starting lineup against a future first-ballot Hall of Famer like Brees in his first NFL game? That doesn’t seem too smart.

Running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, the team’s third-round pick, and wide receiver Tyler Johnson, Tampa Bay’s fifth-rounder, were expected to compete for playing time but have been derailed early on in August. Vaughn landed on the COVID-19 list at the start of camp, which set him behind a bit, while Johnson is currently out with a soft tissue issue.

Vaughn and Johnson could have used the preseason games to accelerate their learning curve in the NFL, just as the team’s undrafted free agents could have used the preseason games to make a statement like former Buccaneers, such as Dotson and Humphries did years ago.

“That’s always the biggest thing,” Arians said. “They get overwhelmed with information and they slow down. The guys that can handle the information play fast. With this situation we’re in this year it’s extremely hard for them, they don’t have time to process it and learn from it and go play fast. It’ll be very hard for young guys to play unless they’re a step ahead and we’re fortunate to have some guys that are very, very bright and came out of really high college programs that did things very similar to what we do, so they’re fitting in very well.”

Adjusting To The Officiating

The NFL officials typically have points of emphasis that they go over with teams during training camp as they travel across the country in August. This year, the league’s opt-out period for officials due to COVID-19 just expired. Officials, whose average age is 52, that decide opt out will get a $30,000 stipend and a guarantee that they will have a job in the NFL in 2021, according to ESPN.com.

Bucs head coach Bruce Arians

Bucs head coach Bruce Arians – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

But the league won’t send officiating crews around the league to visit training camps due to COVID-19 concerns. The fact that the league won’t have any preseason games in August will leave teams like Tampa Bay in the dark over what penalties will be emphasized more in 2020. The Bucs, who were the most penalized team in the league last year with 134 penalties for 1,111 yards, had several bad calls in close losses at Tennessee, against Houston and in both defeats against – you guessed it – New Orleans.

There won’t be any preseason adjustment period to the officials, but that applies to both the Saints and the Bucs, right? New Orleans was also one of the most penalized teams in the league a year ago with 126 infractions for 1,088 yards. And of course the Saints have had two really bad no-calls go their way in home playoff losses over the past two years.

In 2019, Rams cornerback Nickell Roby-Coleman had an infamous pass interference against receiver Tommylee Lewis that should have given the Saints a first down inside the Los Angeles 10-yard line late in the game. Instead, the Saints had to settle for a field goal and wound up losing to the Rams.

Last year, the Saints lost to the Vikings in overtime on a game-winning 4-yard touchdown pass to tight end Kyle Brady, who clearly pushed off defensive back P.J. Williams. No offensive pass interference was called.

Gay Getting Work At Ray-Jay

It’s no secret that Bucs kicker Matt Gay struggled with missed kicks at the south end zone at Raymond James Stadium during his rookie season. Gay missed a 34-yard game-winner as time expired against the New York Giants in the south end zone in Week 4, and missed all three of his field goal attempts in the south end zone in an overtime loss to Atlanta in the season finale.

Bucs K Matt Gay

Bucs K Matt Gay – Photo by: Getty Images

Arians wanted Gay to get plenty of work this offseason at that troublesome end zone in Ray-Jay this offseason, but those plans never materialized due to COVID-19, which forced the NFL to cancel all mini-camps and OTAs in the spring. While Gay is spending some time kicking field goals in both the north and south end zones at Ray-Jay during training camp, having a couple of opportunities in the team’s two home preseason games would have helped even more.

The south end zone has some funky swirling winds, which give most NFL kickers fits. And of course there is more pressure for Gay under the lights and with an opposing team trying to block his field goal and extra point attempts. Outside of Brady and the team’s rookies, no Buccaneer will miss the preseason more than Gay, whose rookie season ended with three misses.

Spending Quality Time On Special Teams

Gay isn’t the only Bucs special teamer that could have used some work in the preseason. New Orleans has one of the league’s top overall special teams units, and the Bucs won’t have any tune-up games in the preseason to iron out any kinks in punt coverage or kick coverage, or kick return or punt return.

Bucs return specialist T.J. Logan

Bucs return specialist T.J. Logan – Photo by: Cliff Welch/PR

“They’ve got a deep roster – a lot of speed at linebacker, places that special teams players play,” Arians said. “It’s huge. I don’t recall them killing us in special teams last year but I think our return game can be a lot better on kickoff and punt. Just all three phases of special teams, getting it all done on a higher level, that’s the hardest part of this camp is getting these guys reps, guys that were here last year, can they really play on special teams? I don’t really want to find out they can’t in the first ball game.”

Tampa Bay could have used four preseason games to let T.J. Logan and rookie Raymond Calais duke it out for the right to be the team’s return specialist. Logan might have the advantage over the team’s seventh-round pick just due to his experience heading into Week 1 with the speedy Calais being forced to start the season on the practice squad.

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