The Bucs beat the Titans on Saturday night, but taking meaning can be difficult
The NFL has pulled a remarkable marketing trick: They managed to get a certain percentage of their fanbase excited to watch teams play glorified practices “against” one another. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tennessee Titans played to paying spectators and a sizable television audience on Saturday night. Neither team cared much about the score.
Consider that the NFL still can’t find a way to get most people to care in any significant way about the Pro Bowl, football’s all star contest. To get them to care about preseason games, which make the Pro Bowl look intense by comparison, is a trick that would stump Penn & Teller. It is a minor miracle of promotion. The whole thing might have required actual magic in the dark arts sense of the word.
The preseason undoubtedly means a few things that most football fans would describe as positive: Football has returned in some form, it’s a chance to see rookies in their new uniforms for the first time, and it’s a chance for every fanbase no matter how hopeless to dream big.
At the end of the day, however, those takeaways are pretty much all a fan will get. Preseason does not necessarily translate to the regular season, and teams deliberately try not to give much away as a result.
It is worth mentioning that the only definitively “good” news that can come out of a preseason game is a lack of injury. Everything else, from first snap to the final whistle, is entirely speculative and we will probably never know how much (or more accurately how little) it translates to the regular season.
The running game did not look particularly good when Peyton Barber was not on the field. Of course, the offensive line is not at full strength at the moment and Ronald Jones is a rookie. Expecting big things out of a second round pick in his second preseason game is a fool’s errand.
Ryan Fitzpatrick looked mediocre. Jameis Winston looked great. It’s important to note that most of Winston’s numbers came against players who the Titans hope will never see game action, but all he could do was play in the time his coaches gave him. In that, he did a great job, throwing two touchdown passes and connecting with DeSean Jackson on the deep ball that had become a point of ridicule.
After an entire season of failed attempts to hit Jackson down the sideline, the Bucs now seem to have that play working. Unfortunately, by the time they have fixed the problems, they have tried that play enough that any coach not expecting it at some point in the game does not belong in the NFL anymore. The Buccaneers have sixteen regular season games, so expect that play to be tried a minimum of sixteen times throughout the season. Therefore, expect every last defense the Bucs play to be geared up to handle Jackson streaking down the sideline. Simply spending a lot of time to work on that play has tipped the entire league off to its existence. Winston and Jackson may be forming a rapport, but their bread and butter play is going to be even harder than before with the league knowing it will come.
Ryan Griffin looked serviceable in late game action against the more-or-less practice squad quality defenses that occupy the late moments of a preseason game. He was 6/11, throwing for 88 yards and a touchdown. Who knows whether this performance against a defense full of players unlikely to be with the Titans after roster cuts means he’s in good form in case he has to fill in, or whether it was a guy who has hung on in the NFL doing well against a bunch of people who will be lucky to do the same?
Ball distribution may be a point of emphasis. Then again, this being preseason it may simply be a matter of getting people their necessary reps. Tampa Bay is loaded with passing targets, with a stable of wide receivers, two capable tight ends, and running backs willing to catch passes out of the backfield. This is only a weapon when the Buccaneers run an offense that keeps defenses guessing by spreading the ball around. Once again, all roads lead to the offensive line needing to be better than it was in 2017. More time for the quarterback means more time to run through progressions and hit the open man, rather than trying to force the ball into a tight spot.
Defensively, the night was even more confusing and noisy. Blaine Gabbert, best known for being that backup quarterback that fans have nightmares about having to start, went 10/16 and threw for a touchdown. Marcus Mariota only completed four passes, but they averaged 11.4 yards and one went for a touchdown. The Buccaneers registered just one sack, and it came against somebody named Luke Falk.
Lavonte David recovered a fumble, which is a line becoming about as common as “you put on shoes this morning before leaving your house.” Tampa Bay recorded four tackles for loss, including the sack by DaVonte Lambert, a name best known for not being any of the Buccaneers’ expected starters. The Bucs’ defense defended three passes, but two of those PDs came from practice squad level players. The only starting defensive player to lay hands on a quarterback was newly-acquired Vinny Curry.
The run defense stood up well against Tennessee, but mostly against backups. Expected starter Derrick Henry only ran three times, but the Bucs held him to 7 yards, so they could call those three plays successful.
On the special teams front, Chandler Catanzaro did a good job of making kicking a non-issue on Saturday night. He was 3/3 in field goals, and a matching 3/3 in extra points. Preseason pressure is hardly a percentage of what the regular season brings, but made field goals are better than missed field goals. Brian Anger looked to be as sharp as ever in the punting game.
Shaun Wilson was the only Buccaneers player to return a punt, getting two yards on his return.
Fans like to seek meaning in preseason games, because these are people who love football and have had no football since the first Sunday in February. To some, no other sport will do, and any football is a welcome reprieve from an offseason filled with politics, drama, and other things that have nothing to do with men in pads and helmets going toe-to-toe.
Problematically, there just isn’t much football to parse. Teams do not come into preseason games with much thought about winning or losing the football game, because preseason games flat out do not matter.
Preseason games are a little like a play being rehearsed. There are actors on the stage, and they are reading out professionally-scripted lines while taking direction from a pro, but nobody in their right mind would call it Broadway. Nobody but nobody wants to have their best night in a rehearsal. All anybody is doing in that situation is making sure they are prepared for the performances that matter.
That is where football is in August. The Buccaneers are concerned with making sure the players know the scheme they are going to be in, their role within that scheme, and what specific situations look like. They are going through rehearsals, and the real show is still to come.