TAMPA — It's preseason, but the Bucs' starting defense has played enough snaps to establish itself as stingy.
Against the Titans, Jaguars and Dolphins, the defense has given up just 10 points when playing intact. By the time the Dolphins scored their lone first-half points in Thursday night's preseason contest at Raymond James Stadium — a 34-yard field goal — the Bucs had a mixture of starters and reserves on the field.
Thursday's game was a good example of what the defense can be: fast and furious. Gang tackling seemed standard, and the run defense was stout against primary ballcarriers Ronnie Brown and Ricky Williams, who combined for 17 yards on six carries in the first half.
The Dolphins totaled one first down before putting together three in their two-minute offense at the end of the first half.
DELAY OF GAME: The game was delayed 45 minutes in the second quarter by a thunderstorm. After a flash of lightning near the stadium, officials whistled the ball dead, convened briefly, then ordered both teams to their locker rooms.
Rain continued to fall, but the lightning subsided enough for the teams to emerge about 30 minutes later. After brief warmups, the game resumed at 9:41 p.m.
PHILLIPS STARTS: Jermaine Phillips — on the heels of his move from linebacker back to safety, his original position — started at free safety over Tanard Jackson. Jackson will be suspended for the first four games of the regular season for violating the league's substance-abuse policy, which is the reason Phillips was moved this week.
Phillips had just a few days of full-time work at safety before the game but played extensively to get on-the-job training. Though he'd been a safety his whole career before being asked to move to linebacker in the spring, the new defense being installed by coordinator Jim Bates uses different terminology from the one employed by former coordinator Monte Kiffin.
CLIFTON GEARING UP: Clifton Smith, who had been used only sparingly on returns this preseason, got the crowd on its feet early when he exploded through a seam for a 30-yard punt return in the first half. Had Dolphins LB Erik Walden not made the tackle, Smith might have broken into the open field and done more damage.
Coach Raheem Morris has been using other returners to gauge their proficiency, but Smith is in no danger of losing the role one season after going to the Pro Bowl as the NFC's return man.
BAD START: P Dirk Johnson had his first attempt blocked with 11:31 left in the first quarter, but a fortuitous bounce off Dolphins LB Charlie Anderson allowed the Bucs to recover, with a 4-yard gain.
mixed results for NUGENT: Mike Nugent converted both of his first-half field goals attempts, from 29 and 38 yards, to give the Bucs an early 6-0 lead. Early in the third quarter he missed right from 52 yards.
HAYES' CHANCE: LB Geno Hayes, who gets first crack at the starting job on the weak side, did nothing to cast doubt on his ability to hold down the position. With Phillips' move back to safety, the job opened up this week, and Hayes is the favorite. He started Thursday and had four stops by the time he left late in the first half.
Stephen F. Holder can be reached at [email protected]