Browns vs. Buccaneers: Previewing Tampa Bay's Preseason Week 3 Matchup
The Bucs are coming off a dominant 25-11 Monday night win over the Cincinnati Bengals, with impressive showings from nearly every unit on the roster. Rookie quarterback Jameis Winston got the team off to a fast start with an opening 80-yard touchdown drive, and the defense racked up four sacks and three takeaways.
This week, they'll face a Browns team that is struggling to stay healthy while still figuring out who gives them the best chance to win at quarterback between veteran Josh McCown and second-year pro Johnny Manziel.
Here's everything you need to know heading into this week's game, Bucs fans.
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Time: 7 p.m. ET
TV: WFLA (Tampa)
News and Notes
Bringing Back Barth
After Patrick Murray missed an extra point on Monday night against the Bengals, the Bucs have brought in some competition for kicking duties in the form of a familiar face.
After the Denver Broncos cut him earlier in the day, the Bucs signed kicker Connor Barth to a two-year deal on Wednesday night. One of the most successful kickers in franchise history, Barth was happy to return to his former team, per Roy Cummings of the Tampa Tribune:
It just seemed like a good fit for me. Obviously I have a comfort level down there in Tampa, having been there before. It just feels right to me going back. In this industry you’re never really surprised any more by what happens. You just put out your best effort every day, but I didn’t fit into the grand scheme of things (in Denver). I’m just glad the Bucs reached back out to me.
With a two-year deal, it looks like the Bucs may expect Barth to beat out Murray this time around, after losing his job to the rookie in training camp last year. Regardless of the outcome, competition is healthy at any position.
Evans Shut Down for Preseason
Mike Evans left Monday's game with a hamstring injury and didn't return, giving Bucs fans a scare as they look toward the start of the regular season.
Head coach Lovie Smith has already made it clear he plans to play it safe with Evans, do don't expect him to play anymore this preseason, per Ira Kaufman of the Tampa Tribune:
If a guy has a hamstring injury, he’s going to be out a while. I could have come up here and said ‘day-to-day,’ which most people do for hamstring injuries. It doesn’t work like that. He injured his hamstring. He’s not going to play this week and probably won’t play the following week. We’ll take every precaution with hamstrings, always, with me.
After watching season-ending injuries to receivers across the league such as the Green Bay Packers' Jordy Nelson and the Carolina Panthers' Kelvin Benjamin, it's not surprising to see the Bucs be cautious with their top pass-catcher. It's much more important for Evans to get rest and be ready for the real thing in Week 1.
Bucs to Winston: Protect Yourself
Tampa Bay's offensive line will no doubt get plenty of blame when it comes to rookie quarterback Jameis Winston taking too many hits, but the team also wants him to take some responsibility for keeping himself out of harm's way.
Head coach Lovie Smith wants his new franchise passer to learn to avoid some of those hits, per Rick Stroud of the Tampa Bay Times:
We don’t run an option football. We want to protect our quarterback. Sometimes the play calls for you to get what you can and get down. We need to work on him getting down. We’re not going to put him at risk an awful lot, but it’s football. Believe me, we know who we have there, and we want to keep him protected.
With Tampa Bay's struggles up front, Winston will get plenty of hits as it is. Playing hard is great, but he'll need to do everything he can to minimize the impact on his body in order to stay healthy over the entire NFL season.
Latest Injury News
NFL teams aren't required to release official injury reports for preseason games, but here's a list of players dealing with injuries this week for Tampa Bay:
The Bucs had a couple of scares in Monday night's win over the Bengals, as both Winston and Evans left the game early. Evans' hamstring injury is expected to keep him out for the rest of the preseason as a precaution, but Winston is expected to start again this week.
Dotson and Spence are likely to be out for a considerable amount of time, while Smith probably won't be rushed back from his groin injury, especially with how well backup Jeremiah Warren played in his stead Monday.
If Johnson is unable to go this week, Sterling Moore and Isaiah Frey will split the snaps at the nickel corner spot. Stocker's status for this week's game is also unknown at the moment, but his absence could give additional reps to Brandon Myers and Tim Wright.
*All injury info courtesy of TBO.com
Bucs defensive line vs. Browns offensive line
The Browns are strongest up front on offense with the likes of tackle Joe Thomas and second-year standout Joel Bitonio. But Tampa Bay's front four proved last week they've made improvements since last year, both against the run and pass.
As the Browns look to settle their quarterback battle, look for Tampa Bay to set the tone with an effective pass rush to force the passer into bad decisions while trying to bottle up the run as well as they did on Monday night against the Bengals.
Bucs receivers vs. Browns cornerbacks
Joe Haden is one of the league's best cover men, but second-year pro Justin Gilbert has struggled mightily this preseason, despite being a top-10 pick in last year's draft. The Bucs will be without their best pass-catcher in Mike Evans, but that will give a deep group of receivers a chance to step up in his place.
After Evans and Vincent Jackson, every roster spot at receiver is locked in a tight battle. Look for this week's game to be an opportunity for the Bucs to separate the wheat from the chaff between rookies Kenny Bell, Kaelin Clay, Rannell Hall, Donteea Dye and Adam Humphries.
Bucs X-Factor of the Week: WR Russell Shepard
Shepard has been one of the better special teams aces in the league during his tenure with the Bucs. But during this year's training camp and preseason, the LSU product has started to emerge as a legitimate receiving option, meriting consideration as the team's No. 3 target.
Shepard showed his potential as a pass-catcher last week against the Bengals, hauling in two passes for 44 yards and a touchdown. He also showed off his versatility with a 12-yard run.
There's a bitter battle near the bottom of the receiver depth chart for the last couple of roster spots, but Shepard should already have his spot locked down. Look for him to impact the game in many different ways again this week.
Prediction: Bucs 28, Browns 13
Compared to Week 1, the Bucs looked like a completely different team on both sides of the ball in their second preseason game, showing plenty of improvement in key areas in their Monday night win over the Bengals.
They should build on that momentum with another home game this week, facing a Browns team that is still trying to decide between former Buc Josh McCown and Johnny Manziel at quarterback and dealing with a laundry list of injuries.
Look for Tampa Bay to get out to another strong start this week in front of the home crowd and for the team to continue its preseason trend of forcing at least three takeaways on defense. Expect an early exit from quarterback Jameis Winston, but he'll do enough damage in his time to secure the win.
Final Prediction: Bucs 28, Browns 13