The Buccaneers didn't just change coaches this past offseason. They changed the culture at One Buc Place. Now, we're starting to see what effect those changes will have on the bottom line.
Tampa Bay plays the third of four preseason games tonight against the New England Patriots at Raymond James Stadium (7:30; TV blacked out locally), and while winning is always an objective, it is not necessarily a top priority. With the first round of roster cuts next week, this is a time for evaluation of player skills and position groups by first-year coach Greg Schiano and his staff.
So, with that in mind, ignore the scoreboard tonight and focus instead on these five critical areas of play:
The Bucs have spent more than $150 million building their offensive line in recent years, but it didn't look like money well spent during a 30-7 loss to the Titans last week. The running backs had very few holes to run through, and the quarterbacks were given far too little protection and time to make sound decisions. This unit is supposed to be the backbone of the offense, so better execution of the fundamentals and more pop is a necessity.
Through two preseason games, the Bucs have one sack and one quarterback hit — both on the same play by backup linebacker Dekoda Watson. Penetration is not the problem. The pass rush got into the backfield plenty last week and forced Titans QB Jake Locker into several mistakes, but the unit is not finishing the deal. Sacks are not everything, but they can build momentum and change games, so the Bucs need to start finishing what they start.
By Schiano's count, the Bucs missed 12 tackles in the preseason opener at Miami and several more against Tennessee. The Bucs have concentrated on tackling in practice for a month now, but the results are still not where they need to be. It might take awhile before Tampa Bay reaches the level Schiano expects, but this was a big problem for the defense a year ago. If it's not corrected, the chances of the Bucs regaining respect and relevance drop significantly.
Josh Freeman's play has been something of a mixed bag this preseason. He looked solid in the opener against Miami, but he sandwiched some questionable decisions around his touchdown throw to Mike Williams against Tennessee. Some of the problems a week ago were the result of trying to get WR Vincent Jackson more involved, but the Freeman the Bucs need is the Freeman who makes sound decisions with his arm and legs and simply takes what the defense offers.
This might have been the best unit on the field last week. In addition to Ahmad Black's interception, the secondary produced several big plays, including rookie safety Mark Barron helping to stop Chris Johnson on a critical short-yardage run. This unit seems to be playing Schiano's downhill attacking style the best right now. It's setting a standard the two units up front need to follow.