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Bucs-Browns: Red zone has become preseason dead zone

Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, left, talks with coach Dirk Koetter during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, left, talks with coach Dirk Koetter during the first half of an NFL preseason football game against the Jacksonville Jaguars, Thursday, Aug. 17, 2017, in Jacksonville, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)
Published Aug. 26, 2017

TAMPA — For all the good the Bucs have done this preseason — they've moved the football as if it were on wheels — all that seems to be left is to score touchdowns in the red zone.

They are built for it, with an array of tall pass catchers from Mike Evans (6-foot-5), Cameron Brate (6-5), O.J. Howard (6-6) and Chris Godwin (6-1).

Evans caught eight passes inside the red zone last season, seven for touchdowns. But at Cincinnati in the preseason opener, Evans and quarterback Jameis Winston failed to connect on two fade routes into the end zone over 5-10 cornerback Adam Jones.

Said Winston: "Me and Mike Evans can't get inside the two-yard line and not connect on two straight attempts."

The Bucs first-team offense has scored one touchdown in four drives inside the 20. At Jacksonville, Winston overthrew Howard in the end zone and threw wildly on another that was intercepted there before it was ruled a sack. The lone TD came on Doug Martin's 2-yard on the opening possession.

"We've moved the ball really well both games," Brate said. "It just seems every time we get down there close, for whatever reason, we can't finish it. I mean, on paper you would think we'd be pretty good in the red zone. That's one of our key areas of improvement from last year."

The Bucs ranked 21st in touchdown efficiency, scoring 28 touchdowns in 54 drives inside the 20 (51.8 percent).

Don't blame Winston. Since 2015, he has 34 touchdown passes and one interception from the red zone. Only Marcus Mariota —- selected one pick behind Winston in the 2015 draft — is better with 33 touchdowns and no INTs.

Winston threw TD passes on 29.2 percent of his passes in the red zone last season, fifth best in the NFL.

Winston points to Evans.

"He knows he can't be stopped, especially down there," Winston said. "But it's on me to execute with him. I mean the guy is special. He's the best receiver in the league."

For all of that chemistry, there's the precision challenge.

Because the field gets shorter, the passing windows become smaller. The defense has less turf to defend. Things happen much more quickly.

"You just got to be precise with routes, with throws, with protections," Brate said. "I think a big thing, too, that we struggled with last year was running the ball in the red zone. If they have to defend both, it makes it a lot harder."

Therein may lie the biggest problem. Martin, who missed half of 2016 with a hamstring injury, wasn't the same player last season. The Bucs had 12 rushing touchdowns two years ago compared with only eight last season.

A bigger back such as 5-foot-11, 225-pound Peyton Barber, may find a bigger role as a goal line and short yardage specialist this season, especially with Martin suspended the first three games.

The Titans, who ranked third in the NFL in rushing utilizing running backs DeMarco Murray and Derrick Henry, ranked first in touchdown efficiency in the red zone last season, reaching the end zone 72 percent of the time.

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"I think we have the potential to be really good in the red zone," Godwin said. "But potential is nothing is if you don't work at it and you don't execute."

Contact Rick Stroud at stroudbucs@aol.com. Follow @NFLStroud

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