The third preseason game is always the most important one: it’s when teams play their starters for the entire first half or even a little more, as the Bucs did this year. It’s also traditionally the last game for the starters: don’t expect to see Jameis Winston and company next week, when the fourth preseason game kicks off.
With the Bucs holding out 15 players, including a whopping eight starters, we couldn’t expect heroics out of Tampa Bay—but they did some good things, anyway. The defense in particular was very efficient, though they struggled on third downs early in the game.
The offense struggled a little more, especially in the red zone, though Jameis Winston had a pretty good game overall, completing 17 of 27 passes for 200 yards and a pick. A decent performance considering that Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson were held out for today’s game.
Let’s go to five key takeaways from the game.
Jameis Winston can run the quick game, too
The Bucs started the game running a lot of quick, three-step drops getting the ball out of Jameis Winston’s hand quickly. That was necessary, too, as the Browns have a strong defensive line and the Bucs were missing two starting linemen and a primary backup.
That showed, but Cleveland struggled to get to Winston because the ball was out of his hands so quickly and accurately. Except when he got to the red zone, and lofted a ball straight into Jabril Peppers’ hands. Oops.
Other than that one throw, though, Winston looked outstanding for most of the first quarter. Quick with his decisions, not overreacting to pressure, and much more consistently accurate than he was last year. He shined in the two-minute drill at the end of the first half, too.
That terrific performance broke down a little in the second quarter as the Bucs moved to longer drops, and the offensive line (manned by two backups and a Donovan Smith who couldn’t stop Myles Garrett) broke down repeatedly. Not really Winston’s fault, but a concern nonetheless—especially because the Bucs couldn’t get on the scoreboard.
But this is what Jameis does too. pic.twitter.com/hM1YvMzmID— Billy Marshall (@BillyM_91) August 27, 2017
Ryan Smith isn’t ready
The Cleveland Browns started a rookie second-round pick at quarterback with not a lot of targets to throw to, but he still made Bucs cornerback Ryan Smith look silly a few times. Smith is the Bucs’ primary backup cornerback, and he has not looked ready for that role this preseason.
That’s not surprising: he was a fourth-round pick who was slated to play safety last year, so of course he’s going to need some time to adjust. But that’s not going to help the Bucs when they need to rely on him.
In fact, the Bucs defense as a whole struggled to stop DeShone Kizer—a second-round rookie quarterback. While they can
Special teams coverage is still outstanding
The Bucs have had terrific punt coverage teams for years on end, and that still appears to be true despite losing Russell Shepard this offseason. The Bucs decided to punt from the Browns’ 38-yard line early in the game (after wasting a timeout, too), and while I’d normally hate that decision, they did manage to down the punt at the one-yard line. As they did repeatedly last year.
Bryan Anger is a large part of that success as he consistently gets air-time on his punts, and drops them where they need to be. In fact, Anger had six punts against the Browns and dropped all six of them inside the 20-yard line. Now that’s impressive.
The Bucs need more pass-rush
Tampa Bay’s pass rush has been largely absent this offseason, and today was no exception. The Bucs did not sack DeShone Kizer at all, and didn’t really get much pressure on him either.
Now, there’s a few caveats here. For one, Gerald McCoy wasn’t playing—that’s always going to hurt. For two, the Browns ran a lot of seven-man protection schemes to keep DeShone Kizer clean and comfortable. And for three, the Bucs were staying away from blitzes for the most part—they can manufacture some pass rush in the regular season by focusing more on those.
But the Bucs need more pass rush than they’ve gotten so far if they want to be successful on defense this year. And it’s not entirely clear how they’re going to get that.
Scoring remains a problem
The Bucs first team has scored all of one touchdown this preseason. That is a horrendous record for an offense that otherwise looked pretty decent. Those scoring problems continued against the Browns, with Jameis Winston throwing an interception in the red zone and the Bucs scoring just a field goal in the entire first half.
To be fair, the Bucs were missing Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson, as well as Demar Dotson and Kevin Pamphile. That’s four starters out, including the top two receivers. And to be even fairer, Jameis Winston did hit Donteea Dye for what looked like a touchdown early in the second half, but that catch was ruled incomplete by the refs.
Hopefully, Winston will be able to fix that once we get into the regular season. But don’t be too surprised if we’re going to continue to see a low-scoring offense.