Saturday, November 18, 2017

Five things to watch in Bucs' preseason opener at Eagles


TAMPA — As the Bucs open the preseason tonight in Philadelphia, you will briefly see offensive stars such as Jameis Winston and Doug Martin, and defensive leaders such as Gerald McCoy and Lavonte David.

But Martin played only seven snaps in last year's preseason opener, with McCoy and David done after 16 plays on defense. Here are five things you can watch for against the Eagles as the Bucs move closer from the 90 current players to their final roster of 53.

1. The return game

Bobby Rainey had 48 of the team's 50 returns last season — only one longer than 38 yards — and he wasn't re-signed, so the punt and kickoff jobs are wide open under new special teams coordinator Nate Kaczor.

WR Adam Humphries (left) will get the first look on punt returns — he had a 72-yard touchdown for Clemson on a punt return in 2014 — with fellow WRs Jonathan Krause and Bernard Reedy (Lakewood High) also likely to get a shot in preseason. Will the Bucs be more aggressive on returns? In their final games last season, Rainey had eight fair catches on punts, with three returns for zero total yards.

On kickoffs, WR Kenny Bell will get the first shot. He had a 99-yard kickoff return for a touchdown with Nebraska in 2013 at Penn State. Rookie S Ryan Smith, who had a 95-yard touchdown on a kickoff at N.C. Central, will also get a look — the Bucs' longest kickoff return last season was a 38-yarder.

2. Backup running backs

Especially if Charles Sims is out as expected with a minor ankle injury, all eyes will be on the four backs vying for the No. 3 job behind Doug Martin and Sims.

Mike James, the most experienced of the four, had just seven carries for 10 yards in last year's preseason opener and would end up among the team's final cuts. Storm Johnson, a former Miami and UCF back, lost his job in Jacksonville last year after totaling 18 yards on 20 carries in the preseason.

There's intrigue in rookie Peyton Barber, who had only one season as a starter at Auburn but has flashed his speed in practice. Another rookie, Russell Hansbrough, had 1,084 yards and 10 TDs as a junior at Colorado in 2014.

3. Pass defense

Preseason games don't show much, but last year's opener certainly pointed to the major issues the secondary would have against the pass. In a loss to the Vikings, the Bucs allowed quarterbacks to go 27-for-33 for 293 yards and two touchdowns.

That's 82 percent on completions, with rusty arms and unfamiliar receivers, so it's less surprising that the team would end up allowing opponents to complete 70 percent of their passes for 31 touchdowns and 11 interceptions.

The Bucs will only show a fraction of defensive coordinator Mike Smith's new defense, but they can still show a lot: Is there pressure on the QB? Can the defensive backs make plays on the ball? There have been many more tipped passes in practice so watch for deflected passes that could end up as interceptions.

4. Backup receivers

Vincent Jackson is likely out with an injury, and Mike Evans had zero catches in last year's opener, so there's a huge opportunity for a deep group of unproven receivers battling for backup jobs.

Adam Humphries, who led the team in catches (nine) and receiving yards (139) last year in preseason, has the No. 3 job, but there's a long list of guys to watch, from Kenny Bell to Russell Shepard to Evan Spencer to Donteea Dye to newcomer Jonathan Krause.

The team had only two passing touchdowns in the entire 2015 preseason, so there's room for major improvement. What's more, the Eagles gave up 36 passing touchdowns last season, second most in the NFL, so while they'll be improved, it's an opportunity for big plays downfield.

5. Rookie linebackers

You've probably heard of sixth-round pick Devante Bond, and undrafted rookie Luke Rhodes could easily make the team. Rhodes has consistently worked as the second-string middle linebacker, and Micah Awe, while tiny at 220 pounds, drew praise from Smith for his play in the first two weeks of camp.

The rookies are challenging returning backups such as Clearwater's Jeremiah George, Josh Keyes and Adarius Glanton. Those jobs often come down to special teams value, so watch those in punt and kickoff coverage as well.


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