FAB 4. SR’s Bucs Preseason Insider
Now that the Buccaneers’ 2018 training camp and preseason has concluded, here are some of my observations and my analysis as Tampa Bay prepares to open the 2018 regular season on September 9 at New Orleans.
• Of the three challenging games to open Tampa Bay’s 2018 campaign, the season opener at New Orleans will be tough, but not impossible to win. The Mercedes-Benz Superdome will be rocking with excitement, and it’s proven to be a tough environment for the Bucs to win in, evidenced by a decisive 30-10 loss last year. But Tampa Bay beat New Orleans last year, 31-24, in the 2017 season finale at Raymond James Stadium in a year when the Saints captured the NFC South division championship.
I’m not ready to make my game-by-game predictions for the Bucs just yet – that will come in next week’s SR’s Fab 5 – but don’t rule out an upset on opening day with Tampa Bay prevailing. The Saints will be without running back Mark Ingram, who is suspended, and the opening line on the game is a 10-point spread favoring the Saints, which is the largest Week 1 spread of all the NFL games. The Bucs might use that as motivation.
I actually think the toughest of the three games will be Pittsburgh on Monday Night Football in Week 3. The Steelers offense features three of the league’s best in quarterback Ben Roethlisberger, running back Le’Veon Bell and wide receiver Antonio Brown. Tampa Bay’s defense will need to be on point against those weapons, and the offense needs to be ready to put up 28-plus points in case it’s a shoot out.
I’m not saying the Bucs’ home opener against the Super Bowl champion Philadelphia Eagles in Week 2 will be easy, but Tampa Bay should have some home field advantage in that contest, and the Eagles have been banged up at quarterback. Starter Carson Wentz is still recovering from his torn ACL late last year, and may not be ready to play in the season opener.
Nick Foles has been battered during the preseason games and hasn’t looked as good as he did last year in leading the Eagles to an upset over New England in the Super Bowl. And Philly will also be without top wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey, who is recovering from offseason shoulder surgery.
• The Bucs have some concerns about the availability of veteran defensive tackle Mitch Unrein, who has been out of action for four weeks due to a severe concussion he suffered in practice. Unrein has missed all four preseason games and has yet to clear concussion protocol.
What’s really telling is that Unrein has not been on the sidelines during practice since sustaining the concussion. That’s not good. Don’t rule out Unrein going on injured reserve this weekend if there isn’t significant progress made in his recovery very soon.
• The news is better for defensive tackle Vita Vea, who could return to practice next week after missing almost all of training camp after a calf strain he suffered on the very first padded practice. The Bucs have been very cautious with Vea’s injury and has been saving him for the regular season.
Yes, Vea is behind in his development, but because he’s Gerald McCoy’s primary backup at the three technique defensive tackle spot, there is no pressure on him to start or play a certain amount of snaps in his first live NFL action. He’ll catch up and make an impact during his rookie season. It’s ridiculous that some Bucs fans are already calling Vea a bust. Absolutely ridiculous.
• The Bucs remain hopeful that left tackle Donovan Smith will be able to suit up and play in New Orleans in Week 1 after suffering a scary knee injury two weeks ago. If he’s not ready for the Saints game he may need one more week’s rest to be ready to go against Philadelphia in Week 2.
If Smith doesn’t play against the Saints I wouldn’t be surprised to see Demar Dotson move to left tackle, Caleb Benenoch move to right tackle and for the Bucs to insert Evan Smith at right guard for Week 1 next to center Ryan Jensen and opposite right guard Ali Marpet. If head coach Dirk Koetter is serious about putting the best five offensive linemen on the field, that’s the lineup. That makes more sense that playing someone unproven like Cole Gardner or Mike Liedtke at left tackle to protect the blind side of Ryan Fitzpatrick.
• And finally, it hasn’t been stated enough but for the top three quarterbacks in Tampa Bay to go three preseason games without any turnovers is quite a feat. It’s not only a testament to Ryan Fitzpatrick, Jameis Winston and Ryan Griffin, it’s also a sign that the coaches – Koetter, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and quarterbacks coach Mike Bajakian – have been delivering the right message the right way.
Those three Bucs quarterbacks have completed nearly 70 percent of their passes in the preseason for 938 yards with six touchdowns and no interceptions – and no fumbles – through the first three preseason contests. Tampa Bay leads the NFL in passing yards per game in the preseason with 315, but the key thing is no turnovers.