Last Friday in Kansas City, 73 different players contributed to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ 25-0 whitewash of the Chiefs in both team’s 2011 preseason opener.
That’s 20 more players than the Buccaneers will even have on their roster once the regular-season begins, and up to 30 more than will actually play on any particular game day in September or December. Furthermore, dozens of those 73 saw significant action – rookie cornerback
Who contributed most heavily to that dominant Bucs’ victory? It’s hard to say. Starting quarterback
If the Buccaneers are to down the New England Patriots on Thursday night and run their 2011 preseason record to 2-0, the key efforts could come from any two or three of 75 different players. The same is true for the Patriots, who come to Tampa on the heels of a 47-12 win over Jacksonville in which all-everything quarterback Tom Brady didn’t even play.
So let’s identify five Buccaneer players worth keeping an eye on Thursday at Raymond James Stadium. Some are starters, some are experienced backups, some are rookies. All could be game-changers on Thursday night.
The second-year linebacker recorded 1.5 sacks against Kansas City and often had reserve quarterbacks Tyler Palko and Ricky Stanzi running for their lives. Both of Watson’s sacks came when he was lining up as a stand-up edge rusher in Tampa Bay’s “Redskin” alignment, which replaces one of the four down linemen with a linebacker. That’s a job Quincy Black handled frequently in 2010, and occasionally to very good effect (just ask former Carolina quarterback Matt Moore).
Watson could be forcing the Buccaneers’ coaching staff to consider him as a very real option for that job in the regular season. Watson stands 6-2, has outstanding speed and is seemingly cut out of a block of pure muscle. He might also be another recent seventh-round find for the Buccaneers, who have certainly had good luck with former Florida State linebackers. Head Coach Raheem Morris mentioned near the beginning of training camp that he was planning to devise a 20 to 30-play package for Watson, and it’s hard to imagine Morris reversing that plan after last Friday’s opener. Look for Watson to get another significant opportunity to rush the passer on Thursday night.
- Josh Johnson
Johnson may be turning into the quarterback equivalent of
That’s Morris’ favorite way to refer to his backfield security blanket, as Graham has proven he can do it all. In 2007, after injuries to several other backs, Graham also proved he was a NFL-caliber starter, rushing for almost 1,000 yards in about two-thirds of a season.
Similarly, Johnson is working on his third consecutive standout preseason. He was masterful against the Chiefs, compiling a 116.0 passer rating while also rushing for 57 yards, and he should see another large chunk of playing time on Thursday against the Patriots. Barring injury, Johnson is not likely to crack the Tampa Bay’s starting lineup anytime soon, but his continued emergence is nonetheless a big plus for the Buccaneers.
Against the Chiefs, Johnson showed a good eye for deciding when it was a good option to tuck the ball and run. He is a passer first and foremost, but his ability to pick up big yards on the run cannot be ignored by the opposition. If the game is close when the starters head to the sidelines on Thursday, Johnson could be the difference for the Bucs between winning and losing.
- Gerald McCoy
There’s no real mystery about the role McCoy will fill in 2011. He will start at the team’s three-technique DT spot and try to bring the sort of disruptiveness to that position the team has coveted for years.
But McCoy didn’t play in the preseason opener in K.C. due to a minor shoulder injury, which makes Thursday’s game his 2011 debut. And that’s a debut the Buccaneers are very eager to see. McCoy has often been dominant on the practice field in training camp, and the team thinks he may be ready to take his game to the next level.
The third overall pick in the 2010 draft, McCoy did not make a huge impact in the early weeks of his rookie campaign, but he was coming on strong before an arm injury cut his season short by a month. The former Oklahoma star says he’s much more comfortable in the Bucs’ defensive schemes as his second NFL year begins, and he’s ready to make plays on the fly in 2011. The Bucs would love to see a glimpse of that on Thursday against the Patriots.
A former Bay area prep star at St. Pete Catholic, Sanders will get his first opportunity to put on an NFL jersey in front of his hometown crowd on Thursday.
Sanders was an impact player in several ways at West Virginia, but he passed through the draft unselected, almost surely because, at 5-6, he’s well below the average NFL height. The Bucs signed him as an undrafted free agent believing he could be an explosive playmaker, especially in the return game.
The Buccaneers do have several proven return men coming back from the 2010 squad, including
In all, Sanders returned two punts for 34 yards in Kansas City, including a weaving 21-yarder in the fourth quarter on which he nearly got around the edge for an even bigger gain. Sanders’ best bet to get his foot in the door in Tampa will be on special teams, and he’s likely to get another good luck on Thursday against the Patriots.
Corey Lynch is an outstanding special teams player and he has a knack for blocking kicks that few can match. Last summer, however, it wasn’t clear how much the team believed in his long-term future as a safety.
Then, in the preseason finale against Houston, Lynch got a chance to start at strong safety and he made the most of it, intercepting two passes and returning them for a total of 119 yards, including a 91-yard touchdown that gave the Bucs a second-quarter lead they would never relinquish.
That performance likely helped Lynch make the 53-man roster, and he did indeed have a strong impact on special teams thereafter. However, he ended up being even more valuable to the team after a suspension cost
The Buccaneers’ depth chart at safety is crowded with interesting prospects, including Lynch. Grimm and
Lynch may have already proven he belongs with his efforts in 2010. Still, another strong preseason would certainly not hurt his cause.