TAMPA — As the Buccaneers wrap up training camp, they are one step closer to the regular season. But what has this team learned about itself after the rigors of the past three weeks?
Is it indeed tougher?
Can it take comfort in its quarterback situation?
Can it finally get to the opposing passer?
In some cases, training camp has brought comforting answers. For other questions, solutions have been more elusive for coach Raheem Morris and the Bucs:
Morris still intends to pick a starter once the team emerges from Saturday night's game at Jacksonville. Conventional wisdom says Byron Leftwich has the edge over Luke McCown.
But the Bucs have discovered they have, at least right now, a good deal of mediocrity at quarterback. Leftwich and McCown both possess skills that make them attractive, but their good moments have been offset by a number of bad ones. And where youngsters Josh Freeman and Josh Johnson are concerned, their inexperience has often been evident.
Asked what his plan was if there was not enough separation to settle on Leftwich or McCown next week, Morris said: "I don't think they can end even. But we're going to play the best player in practice that week, (the one) who practices better."
The pass rush
If there's one thing coordinator Jim Bates' defense thrives on more than anything, it's a relentless pass rush.
But that's a problem seeing how the Bucs have lacked that in recent seasons. So, one of the objectives of this camp was to reinvigorate the pass rush in an effort to make opposing quarterbacks uncomfortable.
The jury is still out to some extent, but there was a surprising amount of pressure in the preseason opener from interior linemen Chris Hovan, Ryan Sims, Dre Moore and Roy Miller.
Now, the speed rush off the edge needs to catch up.
"Consistency is definitely the next step," left end Jimmy Wilkerson said. "With that being said, we can't just be consistent for half the season. We have to do it throughout the whole season. In those last four games last season, there was a lot of inconsistency."
Thus, the four straight losses.
If training camp achieved nothing else, it certainly served to highlight the lack of depth at the receiver position. One week into camp, the Bucs were already missing projected starters Antonio Bryant and Michael Clayton, and what followed was disturbing.
At Tennessee on Saturday, the Bucs were forced to play prospects such as Cortez Hank-ton and Dexter Jackson much earlier in the game than normal. And with the exceptions of Brian Clark and Sammie Stroughter, no one really distinguished himself as a player who can fill a void if injuries crop up or even serve consistently as a third receiver.
"Somebody has to step up and become the third wideout," Morris said. "You need this game to evaluate this as well."
Bryant is expected to miss the remainder of the preseason, and Clayton returns against Jacksonville this Saturday.
The Bucs wore pads as recently as Wednesday, when they donned uppers. It's part of Morris' efforts to instill mental toughness. He seems to have succeeded.
"I have gotten no excuses from anyone," he said. "I have real high expectations for them all."
The Bucs showed some toughness in their preseason opener. The tackling was sharper, an improvement over the lackluster showing down the stretch last season.
"I think we had less than double digit missed tackles," Morris said.
New schemes have been installed on both sides of the ball, making for a long offseason and long meetings during training camp. On offense, there have been a few kinks. The zone blocking scheme that has been implemented is not without its flaws. As seen against Tennessee, missed assignments or technique flaws can be costly.
"Everyone has a ways to go," right tackle Jeremy Trueblood said. "We all have some technique issues, but I think as a group, if we can clean things up, it'll look really nice.
"When you use the zone scheme, you have to have more of a group mentality. In the other scheme, if (a lineman) picked somebody up and threw him out of the way, you knew you would get a few yards. In this scheme, it's more of a unit."
Once that gets cleaned up, perhaps the running game will show what it's capable of.
On defense, the secondary seems to have bought into the press coverage and has shown the physical play necessary to pull it off. The interior linemen are doing their jobs, and the linebackers are certainly fast and physical, elements that are central to their job descriptions. What will make or break this defense, however, is whether it manages to prevent the big play.