Tampa Bay Buccaneers vs. Buffalo Bills: Bucs Preseason Week 3 Game Preview
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head into the all-important third preseason game without a win, hoping to notch a victory against the Buffalo Bills Saturday afternoon at Ralph Wilson Stadium at 4:30 p.m. ET.
Like most NFL teams, the Bucs have had a few bright spots so far this preseason. Gerald McCoy has been absolutely unblockable in his limited action, and the rest of Tampa Bay's starting front seven have also been impressive.
But the Bucs offense continues to sputter, and problems can easily be traced back to the ineffectiveness of the offensive line. The starting unit showed some improvement last week against Miami, but it still has a long way to go before it's ready to face the likes of Carolina and St. Louis in the first two weeks of the regular season.
Improved play. When you come in as a new staff, we can’t set a whole lot of lofty goals. Based on what? We’re starting from scratch. For us, we set the bar against Jacksonville. We wanted better play last week and we got that. Now we need to take another big, big step as I see it. We’re playing the division champs to open up the [regular] season. We need to play our best ball. We need to be peaking about that time. We need to see something that we really like this week.
Smith's team took baby steps between their first two preseason games, but they'll indeed need to take a more sizable leap over the final two before heading into the real deal.
Here's everything you need to know about tomorrow's matchup.
Bucs Preseason Week 2 Recap
There were a few small victories for Bucs fans to celebrate last week, but more struggles from the offensive line and a lack of overall depth led to their second preseason loss in as many tries this year.
Tampa Bay's starting offensive line unit made some improvements over its dismal showing the previous week against the Jaguars, but it proved it has plenty more work to do. The group surrendered five sacks, allowed its running backs to average just 3.2 yards per carry and helped the entire offense gain just 250 yards on the game while going a mere 2-of-13 on third down.
Even one of the brighter spots—a 41-yard catch-and-run by rookie Mike Evans—was for naught when Miami cornerback Brent Grimes poked the ball out of Evans' hand and through the end zone, turning a would-be touchdown into a touchback.
The the Bucs did have their moments, especially when the first team units were out. A Gerald McCoy strip-sack set up a seven-yard touchdown pass from Josh McCown to Vincent Jackson, something Tampa Bay fans hope to see plenty of on both sides of the ball this year.
The backups struggled to get pressure on Miami for most of the night, allowing second-string quarterback Matt Moore to sling the ball all over the field. Before halftime, the Bucs' run defense hadn't allowed total positive yardage on the ground but had given up over 200 yards passing.
News and Notes
Former Bucs receiver Mike Williams will face his previous team for the first time since being traded in the offseason. The talented young pass-catcher seemed to fall out of favor with new management due to his hefty price tag and off-field exploits, but Bills quarterback EJ Manuel likes the playmaking ability he brings to the table, according to Ira Kaufman of The Tampa Tribune:
"He’s done it day-in and day-out. Mike has been very consistent as far as tracking the ball, whether it’s a fade or a deep ball or a post."
Williams should get at least a few opportunities to try and prove to the Bucs' new decision-makers that they made a mistake by getting rid of him.
Show Me the Starters
Tampa Bay's starters saw increased action last week, and their snap count will grow again this week. As head coach Lovie Smith told Pat Yasinskas of ESPN.com, fans should expect to see the Bucs' first-teamers play into the second half:
The guys that start the game on our team will play into the third quarter. They know that. From there, we’ll kind of see how it all works out. What we want to see as much as anything is we’re trying to hit on all the different situations. Right now, we’ve done it for the most part. But now it’s about players learning to come in at the half, us to make adjustments and then to finish up strong in that third quarter. So this is a big part of the evaluation for us.
The Bucs will also be executing their first full-on game plan of the preseason, attempting to simulate the process that will take place for regular-season games. Fans could see a bit more of Jeff Tedford's offensive creativity this week.
Many Bucs fans wanted the team to trade up in the 2014 draft to grab Sammy Watkins, Clemson's electrifying receiver. Turns out Buffalo would make the jump for him, but he might not see the field against Tampa Bay this week thanks to a rib injury.
Per ESPN.com's Mike Rodak, Watkins will be re-evaluated during the team's off day Friday:
Team doctors told coach Doug Marrone that if the game was Thursday, Watkins would not play. The Bills have an off day Friday before Saturday's game, giving doctors another chance to evaluate Watkins' ribs.
Watkins ramped up his participation slightly in Thursday's practice, taking part in routes versus air after sitting out that portion of practice Tuesday and Wednesday. When the Bills broke into full-team drills, Watkins moved to a side field for a workout.
Fans of both teams will want to watch the draft's top two receivers go at it, but it looks like they might have to settle for just watching Tampa Bay's Mike Evans this week.
*All injury statuses courtesy of Greg Auman, Tampa Bay Times
The injuries just keep piling up on defense for the Bucs, but a key contributor could be making his first game appearance this preseason.
Verner has missed the first two preseason games with a hamstring injury, but it looks like he'll be ready to go this week. Johnson was held out of practice earlier this week with a knee bruise, but it doesn't look like the injury will keep him out of the lineup.
A pair of corners are still out, as Jenkins (hamstring) and Melvin (ankle) won't be dressing Saturday night, while another member of the defensive backfield in Wright (back) will miss this week's game as well.
Three more defensive linemen find themselves nursing injuries, as Gholston (shoulder) and Bowers (groin) look to be questionable to play, while Means (groin) remains doubtful.
The lone offensive injury concern rests in the backfield, where Mike James appears doubtful with a shoulder injury. What was once considered a position of strength, the Bucs have already lost rookie runner Charles Sims for the next 12-14 weeks with an ankle injury, and the long-term prognosis for James seems uncertain at this point.
Verner's return will excite fans, but they shouldn't expect to see too many snaps from him. Hamstring injuries tend to linger, so the team won't rush him back too fast, especially in preseason action.
The absence of Jenkins, Melvin and Wright will leave the Bucs skinny in the secondary again this week, which will make an effective pass rush all the more important. Getting that pass rush could prove difficult, however, considering all the bumps and bruises that unit is dealing with as well.
X-Factors and Matchups to Watch
Bucs' pass rush vs. EJ Manuel
Bills quarterback EJ Manuel took his share of lumps as a rookie last year, but the team is still committed to him as their franchise signal-caller. He should have plenty of weapons at his disposal, but he'll have to contend with a Tampa Bay front four that has been nothing short of dominant over the first two preseason games.
Sacks haven't exactly been plentiful for Tampa Bay, but teams have struggled to run the ball against the first-team unit, and I don't expect that to change this week. The Bills offense could be forced to rely on Manuel's arm, which would allow the Bucs to pin their ears back and try to rattle the young quarterback early in the game.
Bills receivers vs. Bucs' thin secondary
Especially if Sammy Watkins is able to play, Buffalo could take advantage of the plethora of injuries the Bucs are dealing with in the defensive backfield. Protection will also be key, but if EJ Manuel can get ample time to throw, Tampa Bay's banged-up secondary could face a tall task for most of the afternoon against Watkins, Robert Woods, Mike Williams and Marquise Goodwin.
Alterraun Verner should return to the lineup at corner for Tampa Bay, but I don't expect a high snap count for him as he tries to ease back from a hamstring injury. With Mike Jenkins, Rashaan Melvin and Major Wright all out, the Bucs could have some worn-out defensive backs if Manuel has the time to take advantage.
Bucs' starting offensive line vs. Bills' front four
Tampa Bay's struggles on the offensive line have been no secret, and they'll face a tough assignment this week against the likes of Mario Williams, Marcell Dareus and Kyle Williams.
The Bucs' starting unit up front showed some improvement last week, and they could still do some more tinkering at the guard spot. Tampa Bay faces two of the best front fours in the league in its first two games of the regular season, so this will be a solid test of how prepared it is.
Bucs' X-Factor of the Week: WR Mike Evans
The rookie top-10 pick flashed his ability to break the big play last week, showing great hands, balance and athleticism on a 41-yard catch-and-run that should have ended in six points. After another week of building chemistry and timing with his quarterbacks, look for Evans to continue to shine, especially with increased playing time this week.
The Bucs would love to finally get into the win column this preseason, and this should be the week to do it. Tampa Bay's starting units looked solid enough last week, and with increased playing time in this week's game, odds should be in their favor.
Sammy Watkins' injury status could have an impact on the final outcome, and the Bucs' chances improve slightly if he isn't able to go tomorrow.
Look for the Bucs' rebuilt offensive line to continue to build chemistry, for their front four to continue to dominate the line of scrimmage and for multiple takeaways to lead to short fields and quick points on their way to a victory.
Prediction: Bucs 17, Bills 13