MIAMI GARDENS — Greg Schiano's primary objective in his first season as coach of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was to change the culture at One Buc Place. Now that he's done that, it's time to start winning some football games. It doesn't matter much if the Bucs win during the preseason, but how individuals and units play in these games will tell us plenty about the team's chances of winning consistently during the regular season. With that in mind, ignore the scoreboard during tonight's preseason game with the Miami Dolphins at Sun Life Stadium and focus instead on these five areas of play.
The Bucs tied for 30th in the 32-team NFL with 27 sacks last year, and they haven't shown signs of improving on those marks this preseason. In two games, the Bucs have one sack, that coming on a blitz by LB Lavonte David in the first game against Baltimore. The Bucs are pinning their hopes for improvement on young players such as Adrian Clayborn, Da'Quan Bowers and Steven Means, but Bowers has been the biggest disappointment of the preseason so far and the pass rush in general isn't far behind. With the starters slated to play possibly into the third quarter tonight, the Bucs will be looking to generate a lot more pressure.
The most hotly contested position battle in camp this year is at backup running back. Rookie Mike James and veteran Brian Leonard have run the ball well, and they have the versatility to fill this role, but the Bucs aren't ready to give either one the job just yet. The team still wants to see what veteran Peyton Hillis can do, but the fact Hillis does not contribute on special teams is an issue the Bucs will not overlook when they start to trim the roster. All three backs should see action tonight, and the one who performs the best as a runner, pass catcher and pass protector will almost certainly take the lead in this key race.
What has so far passed for the first-team offensive line has already surrendered four sacks. Now, it must be pointed out that LG Carl Nicks and RG Davin Joseph have yet to play in a game, but the chances of Nicks playing any time soon were jeopardized last week when it was learned he had contracted a MRSA staph infection. His replacement tonight could prove critical to this team's chances. Joseph, meanwhile, could see his first action of the preseason, which bears watching, as it will be his first game since suffering a season-ending knee injury in Week 3 of the preseason last year.
CB Darrelle Revis probably won't play tonight, but the secondary is still worth watching. The starters (minus Revis, of course) have struggled so far. Patriots QB Tom Brady absolutely strafed them a week ago, completing his first 11 passes for 107 yards and a touchdown. The task should be a little easier tonight against Ryan Tannehill, so Tampa Bay is expecting a marked improvement. The Bucs have done a good job of getting their hands on some throws this preseason, but they are not creating takeaways the way they expected.
The Bucs have been waiting for someone to jump up and claim this job, but no one has yet. Luke Stocker, slowed by a calf strain at the start of training camp, hasn't been healthy enough, and Tom Crabtree, a free-agent pickup, hasn't been consistent enough. The door remains open for someone such as Nate Byham, but the Bucs are still looking for either Stocker or Crabtree to prove he can be a difference maker. Both should get a good chance tonight. Tampa Bay might not emphasize the tight end as much now as it has in the past, but that will change if one of the candidates forces their hand.