Observation Deck: Bucs vs. Jaguars

In this edition of the Observation Deck, Bucsblitz.com's Matthew Postins gives you a preview of things to look for entering Saturday's exhibition game between Tampa Bay and Jacksonville:

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Behind Enemy Lines: Jacksonville

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Game preview capsule

Very little is easy to predict in preseason, except for one inalienable truth — the starters always play more the second time around.

Expect to see players listed as first or second on the Buccaneers' depth chart in meatier roles against Jacksonville. If training camp is about measuring where everyone fits, then the rest of the preseason games are about figuring out who can get the job done.

And the figuring out process begins in Jacksonville.

Traditionally, this preseason contest is a close one. But I think Bucs head coach Jon Gruden and Jags head coach Jack Del Rio will play things closer to the vest than usual because the Bucs and Jags are also regular-season opponents this year, thanks to the NFL's schedule rotation. The pair will meet Oct. 28 in Tampa.

There's plenty that is still undecided on this team, if you've ready my Observation Deck: Camp Battles 4.0 article. If not, here's the link. It features all the top starting, and backup, position battles in camp. Many of them will play out on Saturday.

As for what else I think will happen, who will play and what to look for, here's a breakdown by position to help you out:

Quarterback

Expect Jeff Garcia to play about a quarter. He worked just two series last week and both were three and out. Gruden will want to see Garcia go deeper into the game, throw more passes and see if he can get the offense moving consistently with all the starters on the field. If he can't, there will be questions about offensive chemistry and Garcia's grasp of the system.

Luke McCown had no such problems moving the football last week against second-teamers, and he'll likely see more than a quarter of action after Garcia. McCown's play was flat out stellar against New England. What the coaching staff wants to see against Jacksonville is more of the same. Bruce Gradkowski will work with the third team players and probably see more than a quarter of action. He was less impressive than McCown last week, but he did direct the game-winning drive against New England and that should count for something.

As for Chris Simms, your guess is as good as mine. He's thrown most of this week, worked with the scout team and appears to be throwing better, at least. Whether that means the Bucs will put him on the field is unclear. Gruden is certainly tired of talking about him. If he feels Simms is ready, you'll see the fifth-year QB for probably no more than a couple of possessions, which will eat into Gradkowski's playing time.

Backfield

You'll see very little of Cadillac Williams. Gruden's history of cautiousness with his meal ticket is quite clear. Williams carried once last week and had four preseason carries last year. You may think he needs more work based on last year's performance, but consider this — he had just 12 carries in the preseason when he rushed for 1,100 yards as a rookie in 2005. A lack of preseason work wasn't the problem a year ago.

Michael Pittman will probably start at fullback again because Gruden seems enamored with the concept of Pittman in that role (and you know how Gruden gets when he's enamored with something). Pittman and B.J. Askew will split time, with Askew filling more of the traditional lead blocking role and Pittman being used as a blocking/pass catching hybrid. I'm really interested to see how Pittman is used this week now that he has a week's worth of practices at the position.

Tampa Bay running back Kenneth Darby. (Getty)
Kenneth Darby and Earnest Graham, you can be sure, will get the majority of the carries. I think Graham will have a better game than Darby because Darby really threw down the gauntlet last week. Graham is a far better special teams performer, but he has to make sure the Bucs realize he can be counted on as a back, as well. I'm of the mind that both will make the team now.

Wide receivers

Paris Warren really responded last week. I was beginning to believe that he was a gone for this roster, but after the way he led all receivers last week, I think he has a fighting chance now. I'm going to closely watch him on Saturday. I've always thought Warren had talent, and I wondered why the Bucs chose to give Maurice Stovall more playing time last year than Warren, who had been in their system for two years.

Buccaneers wide receiver Paris Warren. (Getty)
As for Stovall, I would think he would start this week opposite Joey Galloway after taking a back seat to David Boston against New England. I don't think you'll see much of Boston. Gruden admitted earlier this week that Boston was getting tired physically (Boston didn't miss a single workout for injury during camp, and Gruden didn't give him much rest, either). Gruden might want to give Boston a breather on Saturday, one he would normally give to Galloway at this point in the preseason.

Michael Clayton will play Saturday and he has plenty to prove. One could assume by watching camp that Stovall, Galloway, Boston and Ike Hilliard are locks to make the roster. The Bucs have traditionally kept six wide receivers (and one of those would be a returner). The spots are disappearing, and Clayton is behind because a hamstring issue kept him out of last week's game. First, he has to prove he's put that behind him. Second, he has to show the Bucs something they can't get from Boston or Stovall — the physical receiver that can make catches over the middle consistently. The Bucs need an over-the-middle guy, and Clayton's physical play makes him a perfect candidate. I think he'll see about a half of playing time on Saturday.

As for players like Chas Gessner or Chad Lucas, they have to go out Saturday and give the Bucs a reason to keep them. And they have to do it now, because the third preseason game will be the "dress rehearsal" for the season opener, and third-stringers don't play much.

Tight ends

Here is a position I didn't hear much about at all after last week's game.

What to make of the fact that Alex Smith and Anthony Becht didn't catch a pass, or that Jerramy Stevens caught two? Nothing.

The pecking order of Smith, Becht and Stevens is still quite clear. What the Bucs are trying to sort out is how to use each player the best.

Hopefully, we'll see much more involvement from these three on Saturday, and I think much of that will be due to a longer stay in the game by Garcia. He likes to use tight ends and running backs on checkdowns.

Offensive line

Left tackle Luke Petitgout will play, giving us our first look at the remade Buccaneers offensive line.

What Gruden wants to see is simple — a big push off the line in the running game, and solid protection for quarterbacks in the passing game. Those are the big reasons that Petitgout and left guard Arron Sears are here and starting.

That's my focus on Saturday. I want to see how those two play together, and I want to see if Petitgout's back is going to be a season-long issue. You can't tell that from one game, really, but a pain-free outing with the type of pass protection he provided Eli Manning before last year's broken leg would go a long way toward easing concerns about his health.

I'm interested to see backup left tackle Donald Penn in game action, because I haven't yet. Gruden likes him, but I don't know if he's just become one of those "Camp Gruden Favorites" or if he really has the stuff to be Petitgout's backup. Two other players that bear watching are center Dan Buenning and backup right tackle Chris Denman, with the latter's progress now of note after starter Jeremy Trueblood's pass protection issues last week.

Defensive line

Both tackle Jovan Haye and end Gaines Adams played well last week. Haye will start for sure. Adams might, depending on how the Bucs are feeling before game time. But both will play a lot, and the Bucs are out to see if they build on their performances of last week. Haye had four tackles, while Adams batted down a Tom Brady pass on his second play.

Buccaneers defensive end Gaines Adams. (Getty)
The pass rush was, well, circa 2006, and that's not good. Only one recorded sack by backup Ellis Wyms. So the starters and veteran depth the Bucs worked so hard to put together in the offseason proved dud-ish last week. It is the preseason, and the Bucs are doing plenty of rotating. Still, Gruden had to answer questions about it last week. The Bucs need a better push up front, especially on the ends from Greg Spires, Kevin Carter, Adams and Patrick Chukwurah.

Two other players to keep an eye on. First, Ryan Sims, the backup to Chris Hovan. He really didn't do much to impress me during my week at training camp, and he didn't have a tackle last week. I want to see if he has what it takes to back up Hovan. Second, Greg Peterson. The fifth-round pick is a third-string tackle and if his name wasn't on the roster, you might wonder if he exists. Gruden hasn't said much about him. I'm very interested in his play on Saturday. I've said all along the Division II player was a practice squad prospect all the way. That's not necessarily a bad thing for Peterson long-term.

Linebackers

This is one of the deepest units on the field, and possibly one of the closest to being set. For that reason, you won't see much of the starters — Cato June, Barrett Ruud and Derrick Brooks. They'll play a quarter together at the most.

One player to watch is Ryan Nece. He admitted he struggled with the backup middle linebacker role in last week's game. Now, cut him some slack — he'd never played the position before the Bucs asked him to move there about two days before training camp. What Gruden and position coach Gus Bradley would like to see Saturday is progress from Nece, nothing more.

I'm most interested in watching rookies Quincy Black and Adam Hayward, two likely special teams performers for this team, but also long-term answers at strong side and weak side linebacker, respectively. You might even see Hayward a lot on the second team, spelling veterans Brooks and Jamie Winborn. These guys showed they can fly to the ball in training camp. Now let's see it translate in a game.

Also, watch this unit in pass coverage, specifically Ruud. This is the area where the linebackers really struggled last year. I think Ruud could struggle early in the regular season covering deep routes.

Secondary

All eyes are on safety, where rookie Tanard Jackson is impressing everyone and pushing starter Jermaine Phillips for playing time on the strong side. What Jackson offers in abundance is coverage skills. Jackson is a converted corner, and a good one at that. Phillips is the better hitter. Phillips will play longer than most of the starters because of the competitive aspect of this position.

Buccaneers rookie safety Sabby Piscitelli. (Getty)
The other rookie, Sabby Piscitelli, will play Saturday after missing last week's game with an injury. He'll see an extended look at free safety, where he's a bit behind Will Allen, the incumbent. I think everyone wants to see Piscitelli hit, but I'm more interested in how he handles coverage in the deep middle, where the Bucs were really suspect last year.

Ronde Barber and Brian Kelly will play little at cornerback so Alan Zemaitis, Sammy Davis and Marcus Hamilton can duke it out for backup roles. I'm interested in seeing veteran corner Phillip Buchanon's work as a nickel corner for the first time. I think he's physically able to handle it, but I want to see it for myself.

Special teams

This one is easy. It's Mark Jones vs. Chad Owens. The Bucs just need to get these two guys some chances so they can show what they can do.

I'll be blogging throughout Saturday's game, with a link on the front page of Bucsblitz.com and our message board. Check in for my insights and coverage from time to time on Saturday.


Matthew Postins covers the Buccaneers for BucsBlitz.com and the Charlotte Sun-Herald in Port Charlotte, Fla. He is a member of the Pro Football Writers Association and has won national awards for his Buccaneers coverage from the PFWA, the National Newspaper Association and the Associated Press Sports Editors.


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