FAB 3. 5 Bad Things That Happened In The Bucs’ Preseason That Turned Out Good
The Buccaneers finished an up-and-down preseason on Thursday night in Dallas by obviously and wisely resting their starters. The team prevailed 17-15 to finish the exhibition season with a 3-1 record.
So what did we learn from the first three preseason games about the players that will comprise the 53-man roster, which will be announced on Saturday at 4:00 p.m. ET? We learned that the Bucs don’t have much at wide receiver past the top three players – Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman – on the depth chart, and that Jameis Winston was turnover-free in the preseason, which is encouraging. The Bucs also seem to be four deep at tight end with the emergence of Tanner Hudson.
We learned that with Dare Ogunbowale and Andre Ellington that the Bucs are a bit deeper at running back than it seemed in the offseason. We also learned that free safety Justin Evans is closer to returning to action from his foot injury, but it might not be until the second or the third regular season game.
All of the above is a mixture of good and bad things that happened in August. There are five other bad things that happened in the Bucs preseason that actually had a silver lining for Tampa Bay. Let’s take a look.
Jones’ Knee Injury
When Jones went to return the opening kickoff against Miami his knee hyperextended a bit when he planted and slipped on the wet field while fielding the kick. While he continued to play to play through the injury, rushing twice for seven yards, including a 10-yard dash, Jones was hurt and missed a couple of practices last week as a result.
But Jones returned to practice later in the week and surprisingly played in Friday night’s game against Cleveland, rushing four times for eight yards, including a six-yard run that he nearly broke wide open if not for a shoestring tackle by a Browns defender. Jones has seen Dare Ogunbowale suck it up through dings and nicks to practice every day and play in every preseason game.
“Yeah, he’s probably been as hurt as the guys that have missed practice and he hasn’t missed any,” Arians said of Ogunbowale. “That tells me a lot. I don’t buy into the past – I only buy into what I see.”
Ogunbowale leads the Bucs in rushing this preseason with 90 yards on 30 carries (3.0 avg.) and two touchdowns running mostly behind second- and third-team offensive linemen. Ogunbowale, who also has five receptions for 73 yards (14.6 avg.) this preseason, has gone from fighting for a spot on the 53-man roster to fighting for playing time and likely winning the third-down running back role this year.
Coming off a disastrous rookie season and playing with a new coaching staff that was giving him a second chance to prove he’s a capable NFL back, Jones decided to suit up and play in the game, which impressed head coach Bruce Arians, and perhaps even Jones himself.
“I thought he looked really good,” Arians said. “He was doubtful to play and he sucked it up and found out a little about himself, too, as a young player to go out there and play. He looked really fast.”
Jones didn’t play in the preseason finale at Dallas on Thursday night, so his final preseason numbers were 33 yards on 10 carries (3.3 avg.) with a long run of 10 yards, in addition to one catch for five yards. Not exactly an amazing average, but way better than last preseason when Jones rushed for just 22 yards on 28 carries (0.8 avg.), and even better than last year during the regular season when Jones had 44 yards and one touchdown on 23 carries (1.9 avg.).
Jones has gone from looking awful to average, which is what a back that averages 3.3 yards per carry is – average. And he’s proven that he has a good deal of toughness in playing through an injury. Now the next step in the regular season is going from average to good, and then ultimately from good to really good, which is the expectation for Jones, who was drafted in the second round.
Starting O-Line Giving Up 5 Sacks vs. Cleveland
Is Tampa Bay’s offensive line better this year under new offensive line coaches Harold Goodwin and Joe Gilbert? The unit did look better against Pittsburgh and Miami in the first two preseason games, but seemed to take a big step back versus Cleveland, surrendering five sacks in nearly two quarters of action.
After the Browns game Arians said the offensive line, “Got their ass kicked – one-on-one – simple.”
The offensive linemen I spoke with this week said the issues are all correctable and that that many sacks should never have happened. The Browns game was a bit of a comeuppance for the offensive line and it gave Arians, Goodwin and Gilbert a chance to give the line a kind of butt-chewing that they’ve never heard before. Better have one of these awful games in the preseason rather than the first week of the season when Tampa Bay plays both San Francisco and Carolina.
The biggest issue was the play of new right guard Alex Cappa, who looked fine in the first two games of the season but struggled against the Browns. Cappa got beat on a twist and on a spin move by veteran Olivier Vernon. If the inexperienced Cappa struggles in the regular season, Arians won’t hesitate to tell Goodwin to insert veteran Earl Watford to stop the bleeding.
Vea And David’s Injuries
Let’s be clear. It wasn’t a good thing that both nose tackle Vita Vea or MO linebacker Lavonte David suffered knee injuries in training camp. But at least there was some benefit that could be achieved despite those unfortunate injuries occurring.
Beau Allen got to start at nose tackle and play more reps there without Vea in the lineup for many of the preseason games. The same could be said of super-sub Rakeem Nunez-Roches, also known as “Nacho.” With the added reps, Nunez-Roches, who had two sacks against the Browns, was really able to develop, secure a roster spot and earn some playing time during the regular season.
Without David in the lineup, rookie MIKE linebacker Devin White was able to play alongside veteran MO ‘backer Deone Bucannon and get used to his playing style. Bucannon got more reps as a result and got caught up on Todd Bowles’ defensive scheme.
Perhaps more important was that Jack Cichy was elevated to second-string MO linebacker and got more reps, which accelerated his learning curve in this new 3-4 scheme. It also allowed Cichy, who had a sack and a fumble recovery at Dallas, more reps to get back in football shape as he is recovering from a torn ACL he suffered last year in Week 6. Cichy likely makes the team as a result.
It wasn’t a good thing that backup quarterback Blaine Gabbert dislocated his non-throwing shoulder against Cleveland, but the byproduct is that No. 3 quarterback Ryan Griffin now gets to make the 53-man roster, as that was not a given despite how well Griffin played in the preseason. Gabbert knows Arians’ offense and has won games for him in Arizona, which carries a lot of weight. Griffin has been in the league for six years now, but has yet to see any action in a regular season game.
With Gabbert sidelined for a few weeks, Griffin will serve as Winston’s backup and the team will carry three quarterbacks.
“I’m more than comfortable, more than comfortable,” Arians said about Griffin. “He’s proven with some of the guys he is playing with – directing them; [he’s] poised. He’s moved our team up and down the field. Just like he did again [against Cleveland].”
Gay’s Missed Field Goal
Rookie kicker Matt Gay, the Bucs’ fifth-round pick, was a perfect 3-of-3 entering the Browns game, and had nailed a 55-yarder at Pittsburgh in his NFL debut, in addition to connecting on a 48-yard game-winner against Miami. Gay suffered his first miss against Cleveland in a game that didn’t count.
More importantly, Gay got the chance to make up for it in that game as he connected on a 21-yard game-winner against the Browns with seconds remaining.
“Yeah, he came back and made [the game-winning kick],” Arians said. “That miss – that spot on the field has been a little bit of a bugaboo for him all of camp – 38 to 41 [yards] on the right hash. So, he’s got to work on it.”
Now that Gay has missed a kick and recovered from it in the same game in the preseason, he’s ready for it in the regular season. The worst thing for Gay would have been going into the regular season perfect and then suffer a miss against San Francisco or Carolina and have no frame of reference for recovering. It turns out that his missed field goal against the Browns would be his lone miss in August. Gay finished the preseason strong, nailing a 53-yard field goal at Dallas.