Tennessee Titans vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Full Tampa Bay Game Preview
The wait is finally over, Tampa Bay Buccaneers fans.
With the preseason wrapped up and the records back to goose eggs in both columns, the Bucs embark on the 2015 regular season with hopes to erase the memory of last year's dismal 2-14 campaign.
Tampa Bay's Week 1 matchup with the Tennessee Titans pits the top two picks in this year's NFL draft against one another, as Jameis Winston and Marcus Mariota both make their first NFL start at quarterback.
After finishing with the league's worst record last year, the Bucs have renewed hope this season with the arrival of Winston, as they hope to right the ship for a team that hasn't tasted playoff victory since hoisting the Lombardi Trophy after the 2002 season.
The Titans also finished last season with a 2-14 record, and fans in Nashville are hoping Mariota can help turn their franchise back into a perennial playoff contender.
Bucs fans, here's everything you need to know heading into this week's regular-season opener.
Date: Sunday, September 13
Location: Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Time: 4:25 p.m. ET
Game 1: Vikings 26, Bucs 16
Game 2: Bucs 25, Bengals 11
Game 3: Browns 31, Bucs 7
Game 4: Bucs 22, Dolphins 17
Sometimes, the score line doesn't tell the whole story, but in the case of Tampa Bay's preseason, it does just that.
The Bucs had a roller-coaster ride through their four practice games, showing flashes of promise and improvement mixed with shudder-worthy reminders of how similar they still are to last year's 2-14 team.
As the lead story throughout the preseason, No. 1 overall pick Jameis Winston had ups and downs of his own, showing flashes of the potential that made him the top draft selection while also proving he's still just a rookie. Overall, he showed progress over the first three games, sitting out the final game in part due to a sprained ankle.
Continued struggles on the offensive line didn't make life any easier on Winston and the Tampa Bay offense, but Doug Martin still managed to put together an impressive preseason. The 2012 Pro Bowler showed flashes of his rookie-season ability after shedding 20 pounds in the offseason, and he looks like a more confident, explosive runner.
On defense, the brightest spot was easily rookie Kwon Alexander, who snatched the starting middle linebacker job away from the newly signed Bruce Carter, providing big plays throughout training camp and the preseason. Alexander has the speed, range and instincts to be a big-time playmaker in the Tampa 2 defense, and he's already putting his potential on display.
On the other side of the coin, the team failed to show a consistent pass rush throughout the preseason, giving opposing quarterbacks too much time to throw and allowing too many easy yards in the secondary.
After winning just two games in the regular season last year, getting a pair of preseason wins this year definitely helped the fanbase by giving it the taste of victory. But now the Bucs sit back at 0-0, hoping to build on the positives from the preseason while continuing to improve their areas of need.
News and Notes
Winston vs. Mariota, the Next Chapter
Since they faced off in the 2015 Rose Bowl, Marcus Mariota and Jameis Winston have seemingly been on a crash course for a rematch. The NFL's schedule-makers were likely giddy beyond belief when the Bucs and Titans ensured this week's matchup would give them just that, selecting the quarterbacks with each of this year's top two draft picks.
Winston says he has the utmost respect for Mariota, but this week's game isn't about just one individual matchup, per Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com:
It's like two horses at the racetrack. When the alpha sees another alpha, they go on about their business.
It's not about us. It's about our teams. It's just the Bucs versus the Titans. I'd rather the headline be the score than something about individual players.
Football is definitely a team game, but both first-time NFL starting quarterbacks will surely have a significant impact on the outcome of this game. Both players showed plenty of promise in limited preseason action and are hoping to give fans of both teams a show on Sunday.
Despite Struggles, Koetter Has Faith in Offensive Line
Tampa Bay's difficulties on the offensive line showed throughout the preseason. The team is trying to break in two rookie starters and is dealing with the loss of starting right tackle Demar Dotson.
But despite the unit's growing pains, offensive coordinator Dirk Koetter is ready to roll with what he's got, per Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com:
When you’re looking at it from a coach’s standpoint, we never look at it like that. Your guys are your guys. They’re like your kids, right? Your kids get in trouble sometimes. They’re still your kids. Your kid isn’t the starting quarterback or he isn’t first chair on the tuba, that’s still your kid. The linemen we’ve got, those are the linemen we’ve got. Shoot, I think they’re all five going to the Pro Bowl.
With two veterans coming off disappointing seasons—left guard Logan Mankins and center Evan Smith—and three new starters, the overhaul up front is still a slow work in progress for Tampa Bay. But if the Bucs want their rookie quarterback to have early success, they'll need to learn quickly to live up to Koetter's lofty vote of confidence.
Bucs Announce 2015 Captains
Tampa Bay unveiled the players who will wear the "C" patch on their jerseys for the team this year, with a well-deserved pair of newcomers on the list.
The Bucs' defensive captains will be defensive tackles Gerald McCoy and Clinton McDonald—a new addition to the captain ranks—as well as linebacker Lavonte David. On offense, receiver Vincent Jackson returns as a captain, joined this year by veteran guard Logan Mankins.
Another fresh face on the list is this year's new special teams captain, receiver Russell Shepard. The former LSU standout has been one of the league's best aces over the past two seasons and takes over for departed punter Michael Koenen.
"It means an awful lot to get selected when they’ve seen what you’ve done," said head coach Lovie Smith of his new captains, per Scott Smith of Buccaneers.com. "For our guys now the second year around, they’ve had a long time to really see players in that leadership role."
Latest Injury News
*All injury information courtesy of Buccaneers.com
Tampa Bay's injury list isn't terribly long, but it still carries a potentially large impact on this week's game, as star receiver Mike Evans was unable to participate in Wednesday's practice. The second-year pro is still nursing a hamstring injury suffered halfway through the preseason.
Hamstring injuries tend to linger, and the Bucs don't want to risk rushing Evans back only to lose him for a longer period of time by reaggravating the injury. Don't be surprised if he's a game-time decision on Sunday, with the Bucs willing to be patient with his recovery, if necessary.
The Bucs could also take a hit to their defensive end depth this week, as reserve pass-rusher T.J. Fatinikun was also unable to practice on Wednesday. If he's unable to go on Sunday, look for backup defensive tackle Henry Melton to see even more snaps on the edge, something the Bucs have asked him to do at times throughout training camp and the preseason.
Jameis Winston vs. Dick LeBeau
A seasoned defensive coordinator can be the worst nightmare for a first-time rookie starter at quarterback, but that's just what Winston will have to deal with in his first NFL start. After plenty of success in Pittsburgh, LeBeau is now dialing up defenses in Tennessee, where he hopes to replicate the effectiveness his pass rush had in the Steel City.
Winston struggled most during the preseason when faced with pressure up the middle, and you can bet that fact won't be lost on LeBeau during the Titans' preparations on defense this week. They're likely to throw plenty of complex pre-snap looks at Winston on Sunday, hoping to rattle him and force him into mental errors and turnovers.
Bucs' Pass Rush vs. Marcus Mariota
After a college career with few interceptions thrown, Mariota showed the same ability to take care of the football throughout his first NFL training camp and preseason. While lauded for his running skills, Mariota has excellent pocket awareness, which he puts to good use by extending plays and taking advantage when teams can't get after him.
Conversely, Tampa Bay's biggest struggle on the defensive side of the ball has been getting consistent pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The Tampa 2 defense is predicated on getting that pressure from the front four and allowing the back seven to sit in coverage and wait for poor decisions, but the lack of a pass rush from the Bucs has translated to far too many easy yards given up in the passing game.
If the Bucs can't get after Mariota early and often, it could be a long afternoon for their secondary.
Bucs' X-Factor of the Week: DT Gerald McCoy
If the Bucs want to open the 2015 regular season with the win, they'll need to get after Mariota early and often. With little proven pass-rushing ability at defensive end, McCoy will have to be the driving force behind that mission.
After signing a monster contract extension last season, there's no doubt the three-time Pro Bowler is the anchor of the defense. McCoy looked slimmer and more explosive in training camp, which should allow him to be even more productive from his 3-technique spot.
In order for the Tampa 2 scheme to be effective, the Bucs simply must get consistent pressure from their front four and allow their linebackers and secondary to sit back and wait for Mariota to make mistakes. McCoy will have to prove his worth this week and create disruption at the point of attack from the first snap, setting the tone for a long afternoon for the first-time NFL starting quarterback.
Prediction: Bucs 24, Titans 20
Jameis Winston will certainly get a trial by fire in his first regular-season NFL start, facing an experienced defensive coordinator in Dick LeBeau who is sure to dial up plenty of complex blitz packages against the rookie gunslinger.
Winston struggled with pressure up the middle in the preseason, and if Mike Evans isn't able to play on Sunday due to his hamstring injury, he could have a difficult time beating the blitz with his most talented mountain of a target on the sidelines. Vincent Jackson and the rest of Tampa Bay's receiving corps will have to help bail their new quarterback out if they want a chance at moving the ball effectively.
On defense, head coach Lovie Smith preaches the importance of takeaways, and while the Bucs are facing a rookie quarterback in Marcus Mariota, the former Oregon star is known for avoiding poor decisions and costly turnovers. In order to force those mistakes, the Bucs will have to find an effective and consistent pass rush that has been absent for quite some time in Tampa Bay.
The game features two teams that finished 2-14 last season, tied for the worst record in the league. They're both breaking in rookie starters at quarterback but have playmakers on both sides of the ball who can change the complexion of any game in a hurry.
Look for Winston and the home team to make just a few more plays than their opponent this week, getting Tampa Bay off to a 1-0 start and getting a new era off to a victorious start.
Final Prediction: Bucs 24, Titans 20