TAMPA — For a team that touted its efforts to establish a "downhill" running game in its new offensive scheme, the Bucs on Saturday night had one heck of an uphill climb.
But even with the starting offense rarely finding running lanes in a 27-20 preseason-opening loss to the Titans, coach Raheem Morris was not deterred.
Instead, Morris attributed the slow start to technicalities such as "backside cutoff blocks." Overall, Morris found little reason to sweat.
That might sound surprising given starter Earnest Graham's significant struggles to find creases despite a new zone blocking scheme designed to create them.
"We got better as the game went along, and you saw some guys execute some things; take one more step, follow through," Morris said of the offensive line, which played without injured center Jeff Faine.
"You saw us get some people on the ground. That's when you saw (Clifton Smith) hit some of those holes. And you actually saw Derrick Ward hit some of the holes early when he got in. Earnest got the bad luck of it because we were just getting used to it."
If this truly is a matter of adjusting to running the scheme at full speed against an aggressive and physical defense such as the Titans, then, perhaps, the Bucs will be fine long-term. But the numbers are still disconcerting. While the entire starting offensive line was in the game, the Bucs' eight rushing attempts went for: 2 yards, 2, minus-3, 0, 7, 1, 2 and minus-1.
As Morris pointed out, things did get progressively better. But what about that rough start?
There were a couple of missed assignments by linemen and tight ends, Morris said. And the Titans kept many members of their starting front seven in the game longer than expected, making things tougher as the Bucs tried to acclimate themselves.
Tennessee also was playing its second preseason game after defeating Buffalo on Aug. 9.
As for Graham, Morris said his sporadic four carries (for 1 yard) aren't a good measurement of his performance.
"Earnest is a win-by-attrition back," Morris said. "Unless Earnest gets the ball a good amount of times, he's probably not going to look real great."
Regarding the quarterback battle, Morris defended Luke McCown's reluctance to throw deep in favor of underneath routes.
"The couple of down-the-field shots he had, one time the receiver didn't run a (route) that he wanted," Morris said. "The other time was a misread by a receiver when we had a chance down the field. I didn't see the opportunities to get the ball down the field like (Byron Leftwich) had when he got in there."
Morris said the coaching staff will begin making a decision on a regular-season starter after Saturday's game at Jacksonville, which Leftwich will start.
Meanwhile, Morris conceded it's possible first-round pick Josh Freeman's development has been stunted by his lack of participation in full-team portions of training camp. Because coaches are spending so much time evaluating McCown and Leftwich, Freeman and Josh Johnson haven't had many opportunities.
Freeman finished 5-of-9 for 52 yards and threw an interception returned for a touchdown. But Morris complimented his composure despite his limited preparation. At one point, Morris said, a communication issue forced Freeman to call his own play. He ran a draw that went for 7 yards.
"That's the stuff you don't see," Morris said. "It was awesome."
Morris said Faine (groin) and receiver Michael Clayton (left hamstring) are among those expected to return possibly today. Both should play at Jacksonville.
Morris said receiver Antonio Bryant is "looking great" after left knee surgery and is on schedule to return in about two weeks.
Saturday's injuries included an ankle sprain for receiver Dexter Jackson, shoulder injury for safety Will Allen and hamstring strain for linebacker Rod Wilson. Each is day to day.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at email@example.com
Where: One Buccaneer Place, Tampa
Admission: Free and open to the public, but a ticket is required. For tickets, register for the One Buc Club at buccaneers.com. The team will e-mail information on how to select and print tickets. Tickets will be available on practice days if all have not been distributed.
Et cetera: All practices are weather permitting and subject to change; for updates go to buccaneers.com.
Practice and game schedule
Today: 2:45-4:35 p.m.
Tuesday: 10:15 a.m.-12:25 p.m.; 4:55-7 p.m.
Wednesday: 2:30-4:20 p.m.
Saturday: at Jaguars, 7:30, Ch. 8
Aug. 27: vs. Dolphins, 8, Raymond James Stadium, Ch. 13
Sept. 4: vs. Texans, 7, Raymond James Stadium, Ch. 8