This is the "dress rehearsal" game, as many pro football observers are fond of saying. The starters usually play longer. The game plans are more defined. The competitions are fiercer.
If you're a bubble player, or competing for a starting job, this is not the night you want to make a mistake. The first cuts are on Tuesday.
After two games, I think there are four clear issues the Buccaneers must tackle in the next two preseason games if they are to become a better football team this regular season. We'll examine each in this preview.
1. The pass rush
Let's examine this from a statistical standpoint. The Buccaneers have three sacks thus far in the preseason. I think everyone from fans to the Buccaneers' coaching staff expected more by now. The Bucs had 10 sacks in preseason last year, so at the moment they're not even on pace to match that.
Of course, most observers expected Simeon Rice to anchor one side of that line. Now it's either Patrick Chukwurah or Gaines Adams, depending on the situation. Jovan Haye is relatively new to being relied on for a pass rush at under tackle. Kevin Carter may well replace Greg Spires as the starting left end, or at least take significant playing time from Spires.
"He had some good pass rushes, he had some good run-downs," Gruden said of Carter. "He's a physical guy that can push the pocket. All of the things that he brings to a team sometimes don't go up on a stat sheet."
That's true. I think most observers — including myself — agreed that the pass rush did improve last week. The Bucs did double their sack total — from one to two, so don't get too excited. But Carter, along with the first-team defense, did put significant pressure on Byron Leftwich for the three possessions they played together. Adams recorded a third-quarter sack of David Garrard and forced a fumble.
"Any time you have a sack and you cause a fumble, those are two impact plays in a game," Gruden said. "I think he's getting better as a base end.
The NFL does not keep statistics on quarterback hurries, pressures and the like (that's purely a TV statistic).
|Tampa Bay defensive end Gaines Adams. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)|
Second, watch Adams. He made some solid plays last week, but I also saw him run upfield way too much. He would get upfield, realize the play was behind him and then backtrack. That's how he got his sack. I'll give him credit for using his speed and pursuing plays to catch ball carriers from the back side. But I thought that one of Adams' strengths was his array of pass-rush moves (or at least that's what scouts told me). Let's start seeing it.
Third, watch Carter. I think we'll get a clearer indicator of how he'll be used this weekend. If he starts again Saturday, he's a starter for good. I think he has an energy level on that left side that Spires just doesn't.
Fourth, I want to see Haye get in the backfield more. That's key. The Bucs experimented with using an end — in this case Greg White — inside on passing downs in the second quarter. He lined up both at under tackle and at nose, where Chris Hovan plays. The under tackle must get to the quarterback. He must get penetration. Haye must prove he can do that or he limits his effectiveness to just running downs, and the Bucs want to use his speed on passing downs.
2. The center-snap exchange
You have to believe somewhere in Jacksonville last Saturday night Gruden was incensed.
I've been around here enough to know what draws Gruden's wrath, and few things do it more than botching a center-snap exchange.
The Bucs did that four times on Saturday night, both in the shotgun and with the quarterback under center. Starting center Matt Lehr did it twice.
|Tampa Bay offensive lineman Matt Lehr. (Photo by Al Messerschmidt/Getty Images)|
A ringing endorsement. Gruden considers a botched snap a drive killer, and it usually is. It could also be a deal-breaker for a player like Lehr.
Remember that this is the head coach who resisted going to the shotgun for years — and botched snaps were one of his reasons why.
All you have to watch for Saturday is whether the ball gets back to the quarterback cleanly. If any one of these three centers botches another snap, their stock in Gruden's eyes will fall. Lehr's already has, if that quote is any indication.
On a related note, I've never seen fit to include center in my "Position Battles" feature because I consider it the biggest non-competition competition in this camp. John Wade will be the starting center on opening day because a) He's a capable veteran who has seen it all, knows all the line calls and can still block, b) Because as much as I like Dan Buenning, he's just not ready to be a starting center in the NFL yet, and c) Lehr has been released by three teams during his career and I've never thought of him as much more than a NFL backup.
And, yet, Gruden …
"It all starts with making the right call and getting the ball to the quarterback," Gruden said about the centers. "It rhymes the call and the ball. And block somebody. That's what we're looking for. It's a big part of pro football. You're going to see the Dolphins this week, they're going to line up in four, five different fronts in the first eight plays. So you better make the recognition, make the call and deliver the ball, and then block. Do it right, do it consistently and that's the guy were going to play."
And that guy is going to be Wade. Why the Bucs are in a hurry to dismiss their most consistent presence on an offensive line constantly in flux is beyond me.
3. The first-team running attack
One assumes that because the ground game is averaging 4.7 yards per carry that it's all better. Maybe not.
Earnest Graham and Kenneth Darby have piled up most of the yardage against second- and third-string defenses, and if they were to be the Bucs' primary ball carriers this season that would be cause for celebration.
But the starting running back is Cadillac Williams. And so far this preseason Williams has three yards on four carries. As an objective viewer of this team, I think that's cause for concern.
|Tampa Bay running back Carnell Williams. (AP)|
Examine his three carries against the Jaguars:
First carry: Trapped for a loss by the Jags defense, he slid between two linemen who were unable to get a significant push.
Second carry: This time, there was a hole. It was small, but Williams didn't seem to hit with explosiveness.
Third carry: With Michael Pittman as lead blocker, Williams ran right off-tackle and into a wall of Jaguars.
Williams hit the hole with an authority his rookie season that forced teams to respect him. He could also create a little bit when plays broke down. There was none of that last season, and so far this preseason I'm not impressed by what I've seen from him personally. I saw that explosiveness in training camp, but not thus far in preseason. Perhaps I'm just judging him too soon.
You must also take into account the offensive line. The starters played most of the first half and, after Williams and the Jags' first-team defense left the game, the offensive line pushed the Jags' second unit around. So what gives?
I think this starting five has the makings of a solid, productive unit this year (rookie guard Arron Sears probably won't play on Saturday due to a sprained ankle), similar to the one that paved the way for Williams' rookie season. Perhaps this unit is still trying to figure out how to work together and that process is being magnified by the opening plays of the game. This line didn't help Williams much in the first quarter last week.
Plus, there's how they're using Williams in formations. Two of his runs came without a lead blocker. I think that's important. Mike Alstott's injury has forced Gruden to re-evaluate how he'll use the fullback in his offense. Last week, with the first teamers on the field, Gruden opted to use plenty of three-wide receiver sets with lone setbacks. That produced two effects.
First, the max protect sets Gruden used Williams' rookie season weren't there to open up holes. Second, the lack of a lead blocker eliminated the chance of picking off the first defender in the hole. That's the lead blocker's main function. When Pittman was used as a lead blocker, I didn't think he was particularly effective for Williams (granted, there is just that one play to judge him on). But in the single-back sets you're now relying on either an offensive lineman pushing through to find that first free tackler or on Williams eluding him.
Judging from their inability to create a running game with the first team offense so far, the Bucs should keep them on the field for most of the first half and give them plenty of work. But that probably won't happen. Gruden told everyone this week and Williams probably won't play much, as is his formula for keeping the back regular-season ready. So for however long the first-teamers and Williams are together on Saturday, the Bucs want to see Williams hit the hole effectively, shed a few tacklers and improvise just a bit when necessary. The offensive line must show it can get a push against a first-team defense. And, both Williams and the offensive line must show the run game can be effective in the three-wide receiver formations Gruden seems intent on using this year.
As in, forcing some. The Buccaneers defense thrives on forcing turnovers and turning those into points. Last year Tampa Bay's defense forced just 20 turnovers. That's the worst total in team history. Even the 1976 expansion team managed to force 28 turnovers.
That must change if the defense is going to be effective this season. Thing is, the Bucs forced three fumbles last week, but only recovered one. Plus, safety Sabby Piscitelli dropped an interception he should have caught.
There hasn't been a lot of talk about turnovers this season. But it's an important factor in Tampa Bay's Cover 2 defense. The Buccaneers teams that consistently won under Tony Dungy, and in Gruden's first year, forced more than 30 turnovers. Turnovers can produce great field position for the offense. The Bucs struggled in the field position battle last year. A lack of turnovers was one reason why.
This one's simple. The Bucs need to see some turnovers, and then see the offense take those turnovers and turn them into points.
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. He is also a contributor to the Scot Brantley Show from 4-7 p.m. weekdays on WHBO 1470-AM in Tampa-Clearwater.