TAMPA — Eight days after losing to the Jaguars in their preseason opener, the Bucs make their first home appearance under new coach Lovie Smith tonight at Raymond James Stadium. Whether you're in the stands or watching at home, here are five things to keep an eye on when you're not complaining about uniform numbers.
1. The offensive line. Early struggles were the biggest concern last week, with penalties and pressure that played a role in two Josh McCown turnovers.
Jamon Meredith is out of the guard competition for now, working as the second-string left tackle, so four players should get close looks at guard. The starters at Thursday's practice were veteran Oniel Cousins at left guard and second-year pro Patrick Omameh at right guard. Close behind are second-year pro Jace Daniels and rookie Kadeem Edwards. Daniels played well with Omameh on the second line last week, though Edwards didn't get into the game until the fourth quarter as part of the third line.
Don't forget the tackles, either — Demar Dotson had a holding penalty last week and free agent Anthony Collins was beaten badly on a sack. Given the tough pass-rush teams the Bucs open with — Carolina and St. Louis — they need to be ready to start the season at a high level.
2. The defense. Overshadowed by the offensive issues last week, the No. 1 defense was dominant, allowing 18 yards in its 13 plays. That was with a depleted secondary — safety Dashon Goldson should make his 2014 debut against Miami, while cornerbacks Alterraun Verner and Mike Jenkins remain sidelined with hamstring concerns.
The Dolphins allowed an NFL-high 58 sacks last year and, like the Bucs, have made changes, including first-rounder Ja'Wuan James starting at right tackle. Miami allowed only one sack against the Falcons last week, but keep an eye on the pass rush — even the second string, with Will Gholston and Akeem Spence.
3. The return game. Three Bucs — Jeff Demps, Mike James and rookie Solomon Patton — got looks on kickoff returns last week, and expect an open audition on punt return duties as well after the Bucs totaled 4 yards of returns on seven punts last week.
Last year's primary returner on both units, Eric Page, needs those jobs to stay on the roster, so the battles will impact who makes the team as a sixth receiver or a fifth running back. The Dolphins gave up 33 yards on punt returns last week, so there's an opportunity for a splash play if one returner can find an opening.
4. Those big targets on offense. Last week was a quiet one for receiver Vincent Jackson — only one pass thrown his way, good for 18 yards and a first down — and rookie Mike Evans, who had two passes sail over his head. The Dolphins don't have a defensive back taller than 6 feet 1 (the Bucs have four), so size is an advantage Tampa Bay's offense can exploit downfield. That also includes 6-5 receiver Tommy Streeter, who had the team's lone touchdown last week.
5. Depth at running back. Starters will work into the second quarter, so Doug Martin will have a chance to improve on last week's 8 yards on four touches. Rookie Charles Sims is out with an ankle injury, which opens up more playing time for three backs: Bobby Rainey, James and Demps.
With Smith continuing to praise fullback Jorvorskie Lane, there's a chance the Bucs would only carry four backs, meaning one of those three wouldn't make the final 53-man roster. Rainey was active on special teams last week and James and Demps had looks on kickoff returns, but moving the chains on offense can help their futures as well.