Our David Harrison has your Players to Watch for tonight, so don’t forget to check that out, but I wanted to go over some big picture stuff. We also have to note that eleven players didn’t make the trip to Pittsburgh, and that includes big-time players and starters like Lavonte David, Vita Vea, Justin Evans, and rookie cornerback Jamel Dean.
There’s only so much one can glean from a preseason game, much less the very first preseason game of the year. They’re basically glorified scrimmages. Stats mean nothing. But there’s definitely things we can pick up on if we look out for them:
We’ve written before about some of what we can expect from coordinator Todd Bowles’ scheme. Now we actually get to see it in action under the lights. But how much will Bowles want to show? How multiple will they be? How aggressive, and how much blitzing? This is our first chance to see more clearly what first round rookie Devin White’s role will be. Will the defense really be built around him?
With Jason Pierre-Paul and now Vea injured, this defensive line is awfully short on impact talent. How does Bowles scheme around that? There’s not going to be a whole lot of gameplanning in this game, but it’s still worth keeping track of who and how Bowles deploys his guys, especially in the front seven, and what they are asked to do (and not asked to do). For example — what will outside linebackers Carl Nassib and Noah Spence be asked to do? How much rushing the passer, how much in coverage, and who are they covering?
How will the corners hold up in man coverage after years of soft zone? Coverage busts were too numerous to count last year, but you’d like to see some progress there, preseason or not. Lots of blitzing means high-risk high-reward, and we’re sure to see a couple big plays given up, but you want to see that limited as well. It’s also the opportunity for redemption for some and for others the chance to finally show their stuff.
Also, tackling was a huge issue the last couple seasons as Dirk Koetter did not want to tackle in camp to help stave off injuries. Well, the Bucs’ defense was the most injured unit in the entire league last season. New head coach Bruce Arians has been steadfast in his commitment to tackling. If you don’t see better angles and tackling tonight, that might raise some flags.
We haven’t written a piece on the offense like we have for the defense, and that’s because we really don’t know what it’s going to look like. New coordinator Byron Leftwich comes from Arizona, where he was quarterback’s coach and took over halfway through last season for the fired Mike McCoy. But Leftwich is on record as saying it wasn’t his offense after he took over, as mid-season was too late to install anything. He just had to improve on McCoy’s offense — which he did.
So this is Leftwich’s real first season being an offensive coordinator in the NFL. Former head coach Dirk Koetter liked to run lots of vertical routes and attack the sidelines, using the entire width of the field to spread defenses out. Basically, getting horizontal stretches on defenders by running spread out vertical routes.
All eyes will be on quarterback Jameis Winston tonight. It’s my opinion Koetter barely did anything to help Winston or to tailor the offense to fit not just his strengths but his weaknesses as well. Winston’s accuracy is erratic, and he is much better throwing over the middle (for example on posts and dig routes) than he was by the sidelines (such as go routes).
So, pay attention to the type of route combinations/concepts, as much as possible with the tight broadcast angles that are generally used. Will there be more vertical stretches by way of horizontal routes, a la West Coast offense designs? From camp it appears that while Koetter’s offense asked read progressions to go ‘touchdown to checkdown’, Leftwich’s offense will ask Winston to ‘find the open man’. Will we be able to get any confirmation on that? If so, I’d like to see what that looks like, and how it operates.
How often will Leftwich have Winston target the middle of the field? How often will passes be called to the running backs? Not just as a checkdown last-resort-option, but as a designed play? In that same vein, will we see any noticeable uptick in short quick designed passes, ones that look to get yards after the catch? Winston struggled under an offense that had a very high level of difficulty, and he couldn’t carry the team. I believe that one of Leftwich’s goals should be to lighten the load on Winston. Don’t ask him to carry the offense. Let Tampa Bay’s good skill players do some of the heavy lifting.
It’s important to remember that this team is breaking in new schemes both on offense and defense, plus testing its depth. There’s gonna be some ugly moments. But we can get some sense of the identity of this team, and what this new era will look like, even if there’s inevitably some wrinkles to iron out.