MIAMI GARDENS — The start of the 2013 regular season is exactly two weeks away. Good thing, because the Buccaneers still don’t look like they’re ready to play for keeps.
Their offense doesn’t anyway.
The Bucs rolled the bulk of their first-team offense out for nearly three quarters against the Miami Dolphins on Saturday night, but the result was just another disjointed effort that did nothing to erase a growing array of concerns.
Chief among those concerns, of course, is the play of quarterback Josh Freeman, who ran hot and cold yet again during what proved to be a 17-16 Bucs victory, their first against two preseason losses.
Coming on the heels of a week in which Hall of Fame quarterback Fran Tarkenton judged his play as “god-awful,’’ Freeman led the Bucs into the end zone for the first time this preseason but never seemed to find a rhythm.
During an outing that ran well into the third quarter, he completed just six of 16 passes for 59 yards and gave the ball away on a fumble in which he simply dropped the ball while stepping up in the pocket.
“You hate to see that,’’ said Freeman, who has now completed 12 of 26 throws for 101 yards and has a 56.7 passer rating this preseason. “(The ball) was a little slick, but that’s no excuse. It just slipped out.”
Freeman wasn’t the only one who had trouble holding on to the ball. Pro Bowl receiver Vincent Jackson dropped one pass and let another slip through his hands. And a line that only briefly featured Pro Bowl guard Davin Joseph allowed Freeman to be sacked five times.
“It was a little out of sync,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of his offense, which produced just 160 yards on 57 plays, an average of 2.8 per play. “It just never felt like we never got into a rhythm.
“We had opportunities, but we dropped balls, we didn’t protect. I thought we took a big step forward in our running back protection a week ago but I think we slipped backward on that tonight.
“And then, because of those things, the quarterback play was not what you wanted it to be. I don’t think it’s a single thing that’s wrong but the good thing is we have two weeks before the Jets game to get it fixed.’’
Next to Freeman, the play of the offensive line seems to be the area most in need of repair. Freeman was sacked only 27 times in 558 pass attempts last year, but he has been sacked nine times in 26 pass attempts this preseason.
All of those sacks have come as Freeman has worked behind a makeshift line that had been without Joseph until Saturday and has been without fellow Pro Bowl guard Carl Nicks all preseason.
The absence of Nicks, though, may continue indefinitely. The two-time Pro Bowler contracted a staph infection just as he was preparing to make his return to the lineup last week and is out indefinitely.
His absence was felt both in the passing game and the running game on Saturday as backup running back candidates Brian Leonard (10-38-1) and Mike James (7-17-0) combined for just 55 yards and a touchdown by Leonard.
Leonard’s score came on a 1-yard run and gave the Bucs and allowed the Bucs to take a 7-3 lead with 1:06 to play in the first quarter, but that lead came largely as a result of two Dolphins errors.
The first was a muffed punt that allowed the Bucs to get the ball back after their first drive gained 14 yards on six plays. The second was a 17-yard pass interference penalty that gave Tampa Bay a first-and-goal at the Miami 8.
The Bucs used another takeaway, an Adam Hayward recovery of a Marcus Thigpen fumbled punt return, to expand their lead with a 38-yard Rian Lindell field goal with 4:04 gone in the second quarter.
The defense also set up the game winning score, that coming on a 12-yard Mike Glennon pass to David Douglas with 63 seconds left, by recovering a Jonas Gray fumble with 2:58 left.
For the most part, though, the offense struggled to produce yards and points through the final three quarters as it was the Bucs defense that kept the game close as it bounced back nicely from a sluggish start of its own.
Like Baltimore and New England before them, the Dolphins moved the ball well early on against the Bucs top defense, gaining 65 yards on its first nine plays, but the Bucs stiffened once Miami reached its red zone.
Rookie tackle Akeem Spence dropped running back Daniel Thomas for a 2-yard loss to start the comeback, which included run stuffs on back to back plays by Mason Foster and Gerald McCoy and resulted in Miami settling for a field goal.
“It was a tough first drive’ with 18 straight plays but great defenses tighten up in the red zone and we held them to three points,’’ McCoy said. “We’ll keep getting better, but we kept them out of the end zone so that was good.”
Spence, the Bucs’ fourth-round draft pick out of Illinois, produced another tackle for loss and also had a run stuff in the game as he continued to lay claim to the starting nose tackle’s job.
“I’m really impressed so far with Akeem Spence,’’ McCoy said. “I think he has three (tackles for loss on the preseason) so far and that’s great.’’
McCoy was no doubt impressed with fellow Bucs newcomer Trevor Scott as well on Saturday. Scott may have earned himself a longer look and maybe even a job as he produced three sacks for a defense that has struggled in that area.
The Bucs ranked 30th in the league with 27 sacks last year and have pinned their hopes for improvement largely on young lineman such as Da’Quan Bowers, but Bowers has been a disappointment this preseason.
He arrived at training as the likely starter at left end but he has fallen down the depth chart since and played only the occasional passing down Saturday as Daniel Te’o-Nesheim started ahead of him.
“We have to get better at our pass rush,’’ McCoy added. “If we can get consistent pressure on the quarterback like we are capable of doing, our defense can be a top 10 or top 5.’’
Whether Scott can maintain the kind of output he produced on Saturday is uncertain. In five NFL seasons with Oakland and New England he has produced just 16.5 sacks in 18 starts.