The Buccaneers host the Detroit Lions at Raymond James Stadium on Friday night in their third game of the 2018 preseason. With most starters playing into the second half, week three of the exhibition schedule is usually branded as a “dress-rehearsal.” But for Tampa Bay, avoiding any more injuries has to be priority No. 1 in Friday’s contest.
The Bucs have seen several players go down with injuries throughout training camp and the preseason, with some more severe than others. On the defense, Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves III have both missed time, as have Mitch Unrein and 2018 first round pick Vita Vea. Rookies Carlton Davis, M.J. Stewart and Jordan Whitehead have all been banged up at one time or another, while depth pieces on the offensive line such as Leonard Wester, Cole Gardner and Cole Boozer have all missed significant time.
All of that is without getting into the more recent injury issues that the team ran into this week. Running back Charles Sims, who was competing for a roster spot, is now on injured reserve after going down on the opening kickoff of last Saturday’s win in Tennessee. Then, both Donovan Smith and Justin Evans had to leave Tuesday’s practice. Evans’ foot injury reportedly isn’t too serious, but Smith’s knee injury looked very bad at the time. The Bucs dodged a bullet with that one, though he is still set to miss two-to-four weeks.
Luckily, none of these guys are officially ruled out of the season opener as of yet. But the point is, the Bucs need to get through Friday without even one more injury scare. For the most part, the team has accomplished what it needed to in the preseason. Offensively, Ryan Fitzpatrick has looked solid in his time with the starting group, Jameis Winston has been remarkable, Peyton Barber has established himself as the No. 1 back and Demar Dotson has eased his way back in from injury. Defensively, the rebuilt defensive line got some valuable snaps together, while the young rookies in the secondary impressed in their first NFL action.
There isn’t a lot left for Tampa Bay to prove before heading to New Orleans in week one. Yes, head coach Dirk Koetter would probably like to get rookie running back Ronald Jones II some confidence-boosting reps, but how obtainable are those going to be without the full starting offensive line and a makeshift second-string group? He has the talent to excel and Barber has more than proven himself to be capable of carrying the load while the rookie finds his footing. No priority is bigger than the team’s health.
Koetter will more than likely play the starters into the third quarter on Friday, as NFL coaches typically do in the third preseason game. There’s nothing wrong with that at all. It’s not that the Bucs shouldn’t have objectives for Friday’s game. It’s just that the top objective is maintaining the health of the roster.
With all of this said, there’s a tricky thing for Koetter and the rest of the staff heading into Friday: Injuries are uncontrollable. So, the truth is, we can say the words “get out healthy” all we want. When it comes down to it, all there is to do during Friday’s game is hold your breath.