Buccaneers Preseason ‘Dress Rehearsal’ Complicated By Injury, Suspension

Playing time on Friday night could matter more than usual

Typically in the NFL preseason, week three is when a team will play their starters for the most significant amount of time in an effort to prepare them for game situations. This year, with injuries along the offensive line and a regular season suspension looming for Jameis Winston, the Buccaneers face a dilemma as they get ready for their exhibition alongside the Detroit Lions.

The third preseason game is often compared to a dress rehearsal. It is the most comprehensive rundown of what a team’s offense is likely to look like in the regular season. Circumstances for the Bucs complicate that.

Winston will get his starting job back the moment he returns from suspension. However, for the first three weeks of the season it will be Ryan Fitzpatrick taking snaps. This creates a playing time dilemma, as it is critical to make sure the Buccaneers are as sharp as possible in a brutal first three games at New Orleans and at home against Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. It is also important, however, to make sure Winston stays sharp despite not being able to be with the team for nearly the first month of the season.

The offensive line does not make this decision any easier. With Donovan Smith out 2-4 weeks and injuries to much of the Buccaneers’ depth along the offensive line, protection could be an issue. Of course, the only way to lose a preseason game is for somebody to get hurt, so the line holding up on Friday night will be of the utmost importance. If the pass protection seems shaky, do not be surprised to see Tampa Bay make adjustments to their plans to ensure that Fitzpatrick is ready to go in week one and that Winston does not add injury to suspension.

Nothing above is new information for Buccaneers fans. Winston’s suspension has been the overwhelming story looming over the Bucs since it was handed down. Smith’s injury in practice earlier this week was well-publicized.

There is still plenty to observe on Friday night as the Buccaneers take on the Detroit Lions in their first action at Raymond James Stadium since their win over the New Orleans Saints on New Year’s Eve to finish off a 5-11 season.

The running game will be a point of concern. The Buccaneers struggled on the ground in their last preseason game, and with Charles Sims headed to Injured Reserve the Bucs are going to have to adjust their plans for the ground game. Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber will split the bulk of the carries, as they have throughout the buildup to the 2018 season, but expect to see Jacquizz Rodgers on the field considerably more in the absence of Sims.

Perhaps more important than who gets the all-important touches is figuring out how Dirk Koetter intends to use each of his backs. The Buccaneers under Koetter have by and large preferred to run up the middle, the so-called “body blows” that aim to wear defenses down over the course of a game, but with an incomplete offensive line and a rookie in the mix in Jones Tampa Bay might do well to be more varied in their rushes.

On defense, the pass rush will be as critical as it was throughout the offseason. Vita Vea is still recovering from an injury early in training camp, and while the Bucs remain optimistic about his status for the regular season he will not play on Friday night. This puts pressure on Jason Pierre Paul, Vinny Curry, Gerald McCoy, and defensive coordinator Mike Smith to get people in the offensive backfield and force quarterbacks into hasty decisions as well as sacks.

Once again, Ryan Griffin’s limited play will loom large. For the first three weeks, he will be the backup quarterback. Given that Ryan Fitzpatrick has been in the league for quite some time, it is not hard to imagine a sack one way or another taking him out of game action.

The Buccaneers’ secondary is also a point of concern for many fans. The unit has struggled in recent years, and on paper has seemed like one of the team’s weakest spots coming into the 2018 season. Second year player Justin Evans could raise the level of that group, and Friday night will give fans another chance to monitor the progress of Vernon Hargreaves, who has struggled since being drafted out of Florida.

Ultimately, the Bucs will “win” Friday night’s game if they finish it with as many players as they started. Preseason action, and especially preseason results, have a tenuous relationship at best with regular season performance.

Of course, it is better for a player to look good than it is for them to look bad in preseason, as it indicates the offense is pretty far along. At the same time, there is no substitute for full-speed football with stakes. The amount of intensity leads to a physical nature that exhibitions like preseason games cannot match. This is the main reason that the Pro Bowl is so underwhelming.

What’s left to watch when the game does not ultimately matter? For fans it’s the players they have always rooted for being back on the home field for the first time in 2018. It’s a reminder that the real thing is just around the corner, with all the tailgating and parties and fantasy pools that come with it. For all the stories of players misbehaving, for all the times that the real world seeps into football and creates uncomfortable discussions, and for all the worries about the toll the game takes on its players, there is still nothing like football. For millions of Americans, it is the only sport that will do. They will accept no substitutes. Only football is football. Ultimately, that is what preseason is about. Really, it’s what all of football is about. Without the fans there is no television money and endless revenue to split among the team’s owners, no giant contracts for the players, and no league to be had.

Perhaps, then, “dress rehearsal” is not the best way to put week three. Rehearsals are still closed off. Preseason games are open. Consider the third preseason game more of a trailer, a preview of many Floridians’ favorite show in good times and in bad: Buccaneers football.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.