Five things to watch in tonight's game
This ran in this morning's newspaper, but in case you missed it, here are my five things to watch in tonight's game against the Dolphins.
Can Stocker catch up?
The Bucs haven't hid from the fact they had a significant need at tight end. Drafting Luke Stocker from Tennessee in the fourth round was their way of addressing the issue.
But Stocker's been sidelined since the first day of training camp, when he suffered a hip injury. He didn't return to full practices until this week, and the Bucs believe he'll see his first game action Saturday.
What will they be looking for? They want to see Stocker be a factor in the running game, in particular, serving as a key blocker. The Bucs' ground game has been uninspiring during this preseason, with top two backs LeGarrette Blount and Kregg Lumpkin averaging 2.1 and 3.9 yards per carry, respectively.
Stocker, the backup to starter Kellen Winslow, is being leaned on heavily because the Bucs have gotten uneven performances from their remaining tight ends, who are all vying for the third and, likely, last tight end spot.
Does Benn make it back?
Receiver Arrelious Benn had one of the more frustrating injuries on an injury-plagued team last season. His torn ACL in his left knee in Week 16 proved an abrupt end to his season, just when he was coming into his own.
He has been brought along slowly during the preseason despite an astoundingly quick recovery, but he's expected to make his debut Saturday.
Benn gives the Bucs a big, physical target who is skilled at gaining yards after the catch. It'll be interesting to see what role Benn plays. In his absence, Dezmon Briscoe has been the de facto starter at flanker, but Benn is still on top of the depth chart.
What's the cornerback situation?
Things appear daunting for star cornerback Aqib Talib after his visit to see NFL commissioner Roger Goodell this week in New York. Multiple signs - from the Bucs' actions to reports the players' union has acquiesced - point to a likely league suspension for a violation of the league's personal conduct policy during the NFL lockout.
Coach Raheem Morris on Thursday was less confident Talib would play, this after there was optimism earlier in the week that he'd return Saturday. That's perhaps because the Bucs realize he'd be taking away key snaps from guys who need them.
If Talib is out, E.J. Biggers becomes the starting left cornerback, which he has been during the preseason in the absence of Talib. But Myron Lewis, also suffering from a hamstring injury, hasn't played since last season. He's scheduled to play, and he'll have to quickly get to regular-season form. Opening day is two weeks away and Lewis is projected to be the starting nickel back.
The depth behind Lewis also needs to be defined, with players like Elbert Mack, D.J. Johnson, Anthony Gaitor and Ashton Youboty all vying for roster spots. If Talib's suspended, the Bucs will have to go deeper into this pool of players.
Does the offensive line stand up?
In the Bucs' defense, they did not spend time making preparations to play the Patriots last week, and the Patriots' serious approach to the game made the Bucs look bad.
But it didn't have to be that bad.
The offensive line failed to pick up what center Jeff Faine and right guard Davin Joseph called basic blitzes that veteran linemen should properly adjust to. Yet, they did not. And the linemen lost some individual battles as well that left coaches concerned. Left tackle Donald Penn had one of his uglier games. All of this left quarterback Josh Freeman on the run from New England defenders.
In addition, the running game hasn't been productive in part because of a lack of running lanes created by the guys up front. Coaches have demanded a sharper performance from a unit that is the most experienced on the roster.
Where are the rookie ends?
Experienced coaches will tell you defensive end is one of the more difficult positions to play as a rookie. That's not good news for the Bucs, who have two of them.
Still, hopes are high for Adrian Clayborn and Da'Quan Bowers. The first- and second-round picks, respectively, have had some impressive moments in training camp. Now the Bucs want it to translate onto the field.
Clayborn was very solid in the preseason opener, but he was stymied by the Patriots last week. Bowers is coming off of knee surgery and had been practicing on a part-time basis. Now that he's in better physical shape, Morris is looking for increased production.
Saturday would be a good time for both to show some flash.