The Tampa Bay Buccaneers want to win by playing dominant defense, but they haven't exactly been able to do that so far this preseason. In part because of a lackluster pass rush, the team looked mediocre against the Minnesota Vikings. Improvement is needed desperately, and the Cincinnati Bengals represent a nice test case. Has the team taken a step forward in their second game? Here are five key players on defense who will help answer that question.
Kwon Alexander, linebacker
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a new starting linebacker, and he's a fourth-round rookie who unseated the most expensive free agent signing the team had made this offseason. If that's not worth keeping your eye on, then what is?
Alexander was all over the field last week, which is how he bumped off Bruce Carter to second-string on the strong side. But that can still change, if it turns out that Alexander's performance last week was an outlier, instead of a sign of things to come. Conversely, a quality performance will probably solidify Alexander's place as the starter for the rest of the season.
Lawrence Sidbury, Jr., defensive end
Sidbury was the only edge rusher to make any kind of impact last week, but he did so against backups and not with the starters. This week he's likely to get the opportunity to rush with the first team, given that Jacquies Smith, T.J. Fatinikun and George Johnson have suffered from injuries for most of the week. Smith and Fatinikun seem unlikely to play, while Johnson may be limited.
If Sidbury can show up and beat an offensive tackle a few times, he'll be making a good case for a roster spot, and it get some playing time in a rotation. And unlike most of the other defensive ends on the roster, he's actually an experienced (albeit not very productive) veteran who's entering his seventh season in the NFL. If nothing else, he'll give the team's defensive end room a true veteran voice.
Sterling Moore, cornerback
The Bucs have two quality starting cornerbacks in Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks, both of whom looked very good against the Minnesota Vikings. The slot position represents a problem, but Moore is set to fix that, having moved over from outside cornerback this week. For now, it seems that the eternally inconsistent Leonard Johson is still running with the starters, but Moore should overtake him by the end of preseason.
I say 'should' because it's hardly a certainty, and Moore's play on the outside last week was not particularly encouraging. The slot position is very different, but Moore does actually need to show up and play some quality football to unseat Johnson.
Keith Tandy, safety
The safety position continues to be a bit of a mess, with no players standing out and making plays so far in preseason. Chris Hackett got beat for a touchdown last week -- and that's about all anyone did. Chris Conte's still out with an injury, but Keith Tandy will get his first preseason action
I'm no fan of Tandy, but the man has some magical way of getting his hands on the ball over and over again. At some point that's going to result in more playing time, and if he's somehow gotten a little faster and more explosive, he may even find a way to start at some point. But first he needs a roster spot, and that means a quality performance in Monday night's game.
Mike Jenkins, cornerback
Lovie Smith loves Mike Jenkins, but Mike Jenkins does not have a starting job on this team. In fact, Mike Jenkins may be in danger of losing the playing time he still has -- he was beat for a touchdown last week, though that may have been more Chris Hackett's fault. More importantly, though, he simply isn't very consistent in his play and technique. Athletically gifted, he doesn't have the play-in play-out performance that Alterraun Verner and Johnthan Banks display.
Jenkins isn't going to get a starting job, but he is going to get a lot of playing time this season. He's the first cornerback off the bench if either Banks or Verner is injured, and odds are that will happen at some point. Which, in turn, means that Jenkins needs to display some consistency and technique -- perhaps unlikely at this point in his career, but one can hope.