Football is finally back and Tampa Bay is ready for its first challenge. The Buccaneers travel to New Orleans to take on Drew Brees and the Saints in week one.
It’s never easy going up against a super bowl contender, especially without your starting quarterback. At the same time, this is the type of challenge that teams savor early in a new season.
Defensively, most are interested to see how the line performs after replacing three of four starters from a season ago. And that’s not even mentioning one of the youngest defensive backfields in the NFL. Eight of Tampa Bay’s ten DBs have played two seasons or fewer in the NFL.
A win on the road to open 2018 would be the perfect start for the Buccaneers confidence.
1. Ryan Fitzpatrick, the game manager
With Winston gone for three weeks, the 35-year-old Fitzpatrick won’t be asked to do too much in his absence. But one thing’s for sure. He’s going to have to be on top of his game for this offense to find success.
Luckily for Fitzpatrick, Tampa Bay has a talented receiving core that should help make his job easier. Mike Evans and DeSean Jackson are more than capable play makers with the ball in their hands. While Chris Godwin is expected to take a step forward during his second season in the NFL.
If Fitzpatrick can just manage this Buccaneers offense and limit turnovers, his talented skill players will do the rest.
2. Running backs must find stability outside of Peyton Barber
Tampa Bay knows what it has in Peyton Barber. The former Auburn star rushed 15 times for 87 yards and two touchdowns during the preseason to secure the starting job.
However, the rest of this group is a question mark for the Buccaneers. Jacquizz Rodgers, listed as the backup, carried the ball just four times during two preseason appearances. Ronald Jones wasn’t any better, despite getting the most touches of the running backs in three of the four preseason games.
Jones did play behind an offensive line comprised mainly of backups. But the numbers for the rookie out of USC aren’t encouraging thus far. 28 carries for 22 yards, yuck.
If this group’s struggles continue into the early part of the season, you have to wonder if the Bucs will consider bringing in a veteran running back.
3. Will changes up front improve the Bucs offensive line?
With a new center and right guard, It’ll be intriguing to see if the offensive line can take a step forward. Tampa Bay signed former Baltimore Raven Ryan Jensen over the offseason. In the process, they made him the highest paid center in the league with a four-year, $42-million deal.
Jensen's addition — along with returning three other starters along the line in Donovan Smith (expected to play Sunday), Ali Marpet, and Demar Dotson — could quietly give Tampa Bay one of the most solid lines in the NFL.
The wildcard is Caleb Benenoch, who is also expected to return to the lineup against New Orleans. The former UCLA star moved to right guard over the offseason.
Facing an athletic front-seven to open the season, Tampa Bay already has its hands full up front.
4. Retooled defensive line gets first chance to prove itself
The offensive line wasn’t the only one to change over the offseason. The Buccaneers replaced three of the four starters on their defensive line from 2017 during free agency. They also selected Vita Vea with the No. 12 overall selection in the draft, who’s missed the last five weeks with a calf injury.
Like every year since 2005, it’s worth pointing out that Tampa Bay has failed to have a player reach double-digit sacks in what feels like forever. And like every year, I’m wondering if this is finally the one where they do it.
The additions of Jason Pierre-Paul and Vinny Curry on the outside should provide a boost in the Bucs ability to put pressure on the quarterback. While Vea, once healthy, and Beau Allen are an upgrade over Chris Baker and Clinton McDonald inside, who were both cut from NFL rosters during training camp.
Tampa Bay’s first test won’t be easy against New Orleans. The Saints are lethal through the air and have running backs who are capable of making special plays on the ground. Watch out for Gerald McCoy, who may have more room to operate with increased talent around him.
5. Young defensive backs face challenge against talented Saints offense
The first challenge is always the toughest. And the Bucs defensive backfield is in for one heckuva battle against the Saints high-octane offense.
Drew Brees is one of the top signal-callers in the league and he has an extremely skilled supporting cast around him. Alvin Kamara broke out as a rookie a year ago. And though he’ll be missing his partner in the backfield, Mark Ingram, Mike Gillislee is still a very capable third back.
Michael Thomas, Ted Ginn, and Benjamin Watson are the main weapons through the air. Thomas caught 104 passes for 1,245 yards and five touchdowns during his second year in the NFL. He’s looking to take another step forward this year.
Outside of Brent Grimes and Chris Conte, this group is still pretty inexperienced. The Buccaneers will be looking for guys like Vernon Hargreaves and Justin Evans to step up against one of the top offenses in the NFL.