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Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain a mixed bag

Texans receiver Dorin Dickerson, left, tries to work his way out of the grasp of Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes. The Bucs had but one sack Thursday night.

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Texans receiver Dorin Dickerson, left, tries to work his way out of the grasp of Bucs linebacker Geno Hayes. The Bucs had but one sack Thursday night.

HOUSTON

On a night such as this, it is entirely proper to applaud.

You see a third-string safety intercept a pass and return it 91 yards for a touchdown, and you fully appreciate the hours, days and weeks of work that finally led Corey Lynch to the end zone.

You see a third-string quarterback direct a crisp and efficient scoring drive, and you understand how much it means to Rudy Carpenter to get this kind of performance on video for the rest of the NFL to notice.

You see a rookie receiver catch one touchdown pass over a defender's shoulder and another over a defender's back, and you realize why the Bucs drafted Arrelious Benn in the second round.

So, yes, this was a night deserving of your applause.

Just not of your trust.

In a month's worth of meaningless moments, there is nothing quite so pointless as an NFL team's fourth preseason game. The statistics mean little, and the result means even less. By this time in the preseason, a lot of your assets are on the sideline in sneakers and shorts, and that's true across the field, too.

So you do not look for absolutes in the preseason. You do not draw conclusions. Instead, you search for clues. You sniff around for hints of what's to come.

And in the case of the Buccaneers, that remains a mixed bag.

We still aren't sure what to make of this offense, because we didn't see enough of it at full strength. And trust me, it doesn't matter what Carpenter did Thursday night against a ragtag collection of soon-to-be car salesmen in Houston.

This offense is built around Josh Freeman, and we saw him for about only a dozen plays this preseason. That's a concern, but a fractured thumb made it unavoidable. Heck, seeing Freeman throw a ball around on the field before the game might have been the night's best sign.

As for the defense, you could say Tampa Bay's first string made it through the preseason giving up only one touchdown against the Chiefs and a pair of field goals against the Jaguars. All in all, it's hard to complain about that kind of production.

Still, there was something missing from Tampa Bay's defense this preseason. Something that could turn into a major problem if it doesn't change in a hurry by the Sept. 12 opener against Cleveland.

For all the good things you saw out of the Bucs' defense, here is what you did not see much of: a defensive lineman's fingerprints on the opposing quarterback.

Of the 22 guys at the top of Tampa Bay's depth chart, only seven were on the field Thursday night. Yet four of them were defensive linemen. Now that's probably because the D-line is so young, but you can also wonder if coach Raheem Morris had some concerns.

Going into the final week of the preseason, the Bucs had three sacks. The other 31 teams had an average of seven. When you have more in common with Cleveland's defensive line than, say, Baltimore, you probably deserve to have some concerns.

If you doubt the importance of a pass rush, look at it this way:

In the past decade, Tampa Bay's two worst seasons rushing the passer were 2006 and 2009. Those were also its two worst seasons for opposing passer ratings. And finally, those happened to be the seasons when the Bucs went 4-12 and 3-13.

Does that mean the lack of sacks drove Tampa Bay straight to the bottom of the NFC South? No, but it's probably safe to say those numbers are not coincidental, either.

Defenses have to take quarterbacks out of their rhythm. And if you're not consistently putting the quarterback on the ground, chances are he's going to be comfortable enough to complete a high percentage of passes.

It had been assumed Tampa Bay's defensive ends were handicapped last season because the defensive tackles did not draw enough double teams. The interior of the line has been upgraded with Gerald McCoy and Brian Price, but the ends have still been mostly silent.

Is it a big deal that neither Stylez G. White nor Kyle Moore had a sack this preseason? Not really. They played parts of five quarters, so it's not like they've had a lot of opportunities.

The point is, defensive ends have not given the Bucs much reason for optimism in recent seasons, and the past month has done little to change that.

The best thing you can say this morning is that the preseason is over. You no longer have to dissect. You no longer have to interpret.

All you have to do now is wait.

John Romano can be reached at (727) 893-8811.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers remain a mixed bag 09/03/10 [Last modified: Friday, September 3, 2010 8:02am]

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