By Evan Winter
Special to Sports Talk Florida
Can you believe it? NFL Football is officially back (in Tampa Bay) when the Bucs and Bengals kick off at 7:30 PM EST on Saturday night. Well, hopefully, Saturday night. A lot of that depends on what happens with the tropical depression known as Fred, of course. But I digress.
Anyway, we’ve already discussed which Bucs you should be on the lookout for during the game, but what in terms of storylines should you be monitoring come kickoff?
Let’s dive into some storylines for the Bucs-Bengals preseason game.
Can the Bucs pass rush take advantage of a really weak Bengals offensive line?
The main story throughout Bengals camp has been the state of the offensive line, especially at guard. To say it’s in a serious state of flux right now is putting it mildly -and nicely- right now.
And that’s not good when going up against the Bucs front seven. Even against the backups. Because the Bengals aren’t going to get any relief, whatsoever, with Joe Tryon now in the fold.
Tampa’s front seven should dominate on Saturday. This is still preseason, so there won’t be any cause for concern if it’s just an average night. However, I’d expect big things from Todd Bowles and this defense once the game kicks off.
How does Ryan Succop perform?
Succop has already gone through a bit of a slump in camp, but he’s killed it since. Pewter Report’s Jon Ledyard wrote as recently as Wednesday that Succop is 22-of-24 during his last three kicking session and one of those misses was a Jamel Dean block. We all know how much a kicker’s mentality can affect their game, so it’s nice to see Succop hasn’t lost an edge in that regard.
If Tropical Storm Fred causes a downpour, then it’s going to be hard to gauge Succop’s performance. If he even plays. But if he does play, it will be must-watch TV when he does in fact line up for a PAT or a field goal.
But speaking of Fred…
How will Fred affect the game?
Unfortunately, it’s that time of the year for Florida. But fortunately, all signs currently point toward an innocuous occurrence in Fred. Let’s hope it stays that way. But there’s a good chance there will at least be some effects. Like a ton of rain, for instance.
“That thing is still under watch, whether it would be moved to Friday, Sunday or whatever it is. We’ll probably just play in a hell of a lot of rain,” Bruce Arians said after Wednesday’s practice.
The worst-case scenario -in terms of the game- is that Fred makes it nearly impossible to evaluate the players in the game. But at the same time, if that’s the worst thing that happens, everyone is in good shape.
How will the Bucs split up the kick return duties?
And speaking of the first depth chart: Jaydon Mickens is currently listed as the sixth receiver and the Bucs’ kick and punt returner. The development isn’t that big of a surprise considering Mickens’ experience as a kick returner and the fact that he’s had a strong camp so far. However, one would assume that he isn’t going to return every kick against the Bengals.
Jaelon Darden is the first name that comes to mind when it’s time to sub out Mickens. What happens if he flashes in a major way? Would it be enough to disrupt the current hierarchy?
Can K.J. Britt, Antonio Hamilton, and Codey McElroy widen the gap between them and their positional competition?
These three are currently holding on to the ILB4, CB5, and TE4 spots, per the Bucs first unofficial depth chart. All three of those positions are up for grabs and are mired in competition. A big night Saturday could mean the gap widens even more. As disheartening as that may be for the players below them, that would be a nice development for the Bucs. Which is what you want at the end of the day.
John Molchon’s (potential) time to shine
All of a sudden, the Bucs have zero depth at center. Robert Hainsey has missed the last week of practice and Donell Stanley has missed the last couple of practices.
As a result, John Molchon -who technically made the final 53 in 2020- has been taking snaps at center. If Hainsey and Stanley don’t go, Molchon should get plenty of playing time. This means he should get a big opportunity to put his name in the hat for the ninth offensive line spot.
Can anyone start to pass Cam Gill up for the fifth OLB position?
It’s fair to assume that Gill still has the lead on the OLB5 position, even with his extended absence. But if someone steps up against the Bengals -and they certainly have a good opportunity to do so considering the opponent- then it could start to cause trouble for Gill.
Gill was also seen in a walking boot during Thursday’s practice. So if there was ever a time for someone to start stepping up, it would be this weekend.
Will the Bengals defense be able to make some plays against the Bucs offense?
On the flip side, the Bengals defense sounds much improved so far throughout training camp. Lou Anarumo’s crew has made life hell for Joe Burrow and his crew, which is an interesting revelation. Cincy’s offense was easily considered the strength of this team coming into camp and Cincy’s defense was not good last year. The fact that it’s been able to turn things around -so far- has been pretty remarkable to read about.
The Bucs offense has had some lackluster moments throughout camp, but it sounds like things have started to take shape over the recent practices. But no matter which team it is, both the Bucs offense and the Bengals defense will have a good opportunity to really get things moving in terms of progress.
Is the Bengals improving secondary for real?
Of course, this is the first preseason game, therefore anything the secondary does won’t deem it “real”. But based off camp reports, the Bengals secondary sounds like it’s going to be a very effective unit in 2021.
Chidobe Awuzie has been the star so far and will have a good chance to strut his stuff against the Bucs receivers. Von Bell has reportedly improved the man coverage aspect of his game, which will only make him better than he already is. Jessie Bates III is still Jessie Bates III. Mike Hilton is one of the more successful slot corners in the league. And there are some decent backups, as well.
These guys have been shutting down the trio of Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and Ja’Marr Chase throughout camp. But they’ll receive an even bigger test against the trio of Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, and Antonio Brown. This could easily be the biggest storyline to monitor during the matchup.
What are you going to be watching for during the Bucs-Bengals game? Let us know in the comment section below!