10 Bucs takeaways from preseason finale against Colts as final roster cuts loom – The Athletic

The big story Saturday night against the Colts was Tom Brady getting in a preseason cameo and leading the starters to a field goal on the opening drive. And like any preseason game, what happened mattered less and less with every passing possession.

The Bucs have big decisions to make in the next 48 hours as they pare their roster from the current 80 players to 53 by Tuesday at 4 p.m. ET, with the chance to bring back 16 guys on the practice squad Wednesday if they clear waivers. The battles for those final spots will be the biggest discussions as cuts likely begin in full Monday, but here are 10 more observations to make from Saturday’s preseason finale.

Really, just ignore the score

Preseason games aren’t about scores or outcomes as much as evaluation, so while a 27-10 loss on the scoreboard looks bad, it was mostly determined with relevant players already on the sidelines.

Look at the initial drives: The Bucs with their starting offense moved the ball well, got four first downs and 57 yards and stalled in the red zone for a field goal. The Colts’ starting offense didn’t cross midfield and got one first down in two drives against the Bucs’ starting defense, getting 18 total yards on eight plays.

Tom Brady spoke for the first time Saturday since his time away from the Bucs earlier in training camp.

“You’ve got to just try to figure out life the best you can.”

Even the second units were largely a wash. Matt Ryan, staying in the game for three drives compared to Brady’s one, got a 48-yard touchdown drive against Bucs backups. The Bucs answered with an 81-yard touchdown drive, with rookie tight end Cade Otton getting a 30-yard catch and running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn getting runs of 14 and 12 yards to set up his 1-yard touchdown for a 10-7 lead.

There are overall concerns, like the defense getting no takeaways, but linebacker Lavonte David had a nice sack on a blitz to kill one drive. The Bucs didn’t get their hands on many passes in three games — the Colts attempted 22 throws Saturday and the lone pass breakup came from rookie linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi. Special teams was a mess again, but that’s with personnel continuity being sacrificed for open auditions in key spots.

How thin is the interior offensive line?

The Bucs already lost Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen to a significant knee injury on the second day of training camp, and if he comes back at all, it’s only a slight chance he could return late in the playoffs. Losing Aaron Stinnie to a knee injury in last week’s game left them with no backups on the interior line with any significant NFL experience. Center Robert Hainsey played 31 offensive snaps as a rookie, left guard Luke Goedeke is a rookie, backup Nick Leverett essentially has played in one NFL game, and backup Brandon Walton has never played in a regular-season game in his two years in the league.

Video from last night: Bucs rookie guard Luke Goedeke talks about working with the starting line and building confidence heading into the season opener. pic.twitter.com/pVPEKTHnFo

— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 28, 2022

To complicate the concerns, Hainsey left the game Saturday with a left ankle injury, needing help to walk off the field. He stayed on the sidelines, standing and talking to teammates with not so much as a wrap on his ankle, suggesting it isn’t serious, but then Leverett left the game with a shoulder injury, its severity unknown still Sunday morning as they await test results.

Does that lead the Bucs to consider plucking a veteran guard from the players cut elsewhere Tuesday, if only to have a backup interior lineman with a little more experience? Those options aren’t likely to be starting material unless Hainsey had a more long-term injury, so they’d be upgrading their depth at little expense. What you’d be doing is insulating yourself against the exact situation they faced Saturday night, where multiple players went down with injury, exposing a lack of experienced depth.

You could argue there’s a greater need for upgrading depth than there was two years ago, when the Bucs traded a future late-round pick for Steelers backup Jerald Hawkins. Perhaps they could deal off one of their many receivers in a spare-parts trade for a backup interior lineman close to being cut from a deeper offensive line.

For Kyle Trask, progress with zero turnovers

Second-year quarterback Kyle Trask had a middling preseason, and while he couldn’t lead the offense to any points in six drives Saturday, one point of progress was finishing the game without any turnovers, after three in the first two games. Trask finished an efficient 7-for-10 for 94 yards, with a good chunk of that coming on a 46-yard throw to rookie tight end J.J. Howland.

“I thought he had some moxie last night, he got out of the pocket two or three times and made some throws, made something happen, which is what we wanted to see,” Bucs coach Todd Bowles said. “He grew in the offense. I’m not saying he was perfect, by no means. He’ll continue to learn. We thought his confidence grew, and we saw a lot of things from a positive standpoint.”

The Bucs as an offense were 1-for-11 on third downs, the lone conversion coming from Trask pulling out a third-and-14 with a nice 21-yard throw to Tyler Johnson, who also caught a 10-yard pass for a fourth-down conversion. Johnson had the only third or fourth-down conversions the entire night, solidifying his status as the fifth receiver and safely on the 53-man roster.

This could be the last time Trask sees playing time this season, after being inactive as the No. 3 quarterback in all 19 games his rookie season. The best reasonable scenario for him, barring an injury, is that the Bucs are comfortable dressing him as a third quarterback (at the expense of special-teams help and depth) in a game against a lesser opponent, allowing them to play him instead of Gabbert if the game is in hand in the closing minutes.

Which rookies on the bubble made the best case?

Some of the Bucs’ undrafted rookies have produced, and the player perhaps in best position to stick on the 53 is Fatukasi, who has at least tied for the team lead in tackles in all three preseason games. On Saturday, he got a nice stop on a first-and-goal run from the 1-yard line, one of five tackles on a busy day.

It’s a bit telling that Fatukasi got in the game ahead of second-year pro Grant Stuard, who was coming back from injury, and he played significantly more — 34 defensive snaps and 16 on special teams for Fatukasi, compared to just 10 and seven for Stuard, who made the cut as a seventh-round pick last year and led the team in special-teams tackles. If Fatukasi makes the 53, is it as a fifth inside linebacker along with Stuard, or as a fourth instead of him?

Meet Bucs linebacker Olakunle Fatukasi — just call him O-three — as the undrafted rookie from Rutgers makes a final push to stick on the 53-man roster, following his brother Foley’s NFL footsteps. https://t.co/Fj1gNaPQci

— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 26, 2022

Another rookie continuing to get a long look is safety Nolan Turner, who played all but two snaps and had a team-high 21 special-teams snaps. Some of that is a function of Antoine Winfield and Mike Edwards getting pulled after eight snaps and Logan Ryan and Keanu Neal being held out with minor injuries. But Turner has impressed coaches and had a tackle on special teams on Saturday, putting him squarely in the middle of the competition for a ninth DB spot on the 53.

Tight end Ko Kieft, a sixth-round pick from Minnesota, had the initial blocks on Vaughn’s two long runs and made another tackle on special teams, and he appears to have solidified his case for the Bucs to carry a fourth tight end on the 53. Another late draft pick, outside linebacker Andre Anthony, the seventh-round pick from LSU, had a sack late in the game, his second in the preseason, but might be on the outside looking in, returning on the practice squad if he clears waivers.

As the eighth draft pick on a loaded roster, that’s probably the expectation for him as a player coming off a torn ACL who did well to re-establish himself as being healthy and capable of developing this season.

“Just make the most of my opportunity, that was the main thing, play my role and make plays,” Anthony said. “I was coming off the ACL coming out of college, and they took their time with me getting back to playing as the weeks went on. Miami was the first time back out there, and progressing every week was the main thing. I feel great. I showed I’m healed and I’m good. You’ve got to get that game speed, and I got the confidence back and it showed, last week and this week. I feel great about whatever happens.”

Field position killed the Bucs

How do you play a game with zero turnovers and a 266-262 edge in yardage and lose by 17 points? A big part of what went wrong for the Bucs was simple field position.

Tampa Bay’s best starting field position on their first 10 drives was its own 26, and half of those started at the 15 or worse. The Colts, meanwhile, started two drives in Bucs territory, another at midfield and three outside their own 40, which is to say their drives often started in better shape than the Bucs’ drives finished.

That tilts the field, so the Bucs ran 57 offensive plays, but just six in the red zone, three of them on the opening drive. Poor punt coverage sustained the field disadvantage for an entire game. Rookie Jake Camarda averaged 45.7 yards per punt, which is fine, but 70 yards in punt returns made for a 35.7-yard net average, compared to a stellar 48-yard net for the Colts.

Bowles said the Bucs asked Camarda to punt farther — to outkick his coverage essentially — to help them evaluate potential gunners, the players who line up outside and are tasked with getting to the returner first to minimize the return. Safety Chris Cooper, who made the initial 53 last year as a special-teams player but ended up on the practice squad all year, got the tackle on the first punt for a 53-yard net, but of the remaining six punts, none had a net of even 40. Asked if any of the gunners Saturday showed him anything, Bowles said “not consistently.”

“I don’t think anybody stood out last night to say ‘Wow, maybe I should think this way or that way,’” Bowles said Sunday. “I think it was pretty much the status quo of what we thought.”

Case in point: Bucs are at the Colts’ 40 late in the third quarter and opt to go for it on fourth-and-6, something they might not do in a regular-season game. But rookie tight end Otton was flagged for a false start, so they’re back at the Colts’ 45 and opt to punt. This is a great test for situational punting, at being able to pin an opponent inside their 20, if not their 10. Camarda’s punt goes 36 yards and is fielded at the 9, but the middle of the field is open and the Colts get a 14-yard return to the 23. It’s a 22-yard net punt, worse than a touchback, and typical of a night in which they had seven punts, none downed inside the 20.

Hiding the rookie receivers?

If you go back to the preseason opener, the offensive stars were undrafted rookie receivers Jerreth Sterns, Deven Thompkins and Kaylon Geiger, who combined for more than 100 yards a touchdown and clutch catches on a final drive for a would-be game-winning field goal.

But Saturday, as was also the case against the Titans last week, the Bucs seemed to go out of their way to not play the rookie receivers or give them a chance to make splash plays at all. That would line up with a team hoping to get young players through waivers to bring back on the practice squad.

How else do you explain those three not getting a single target until 10 minutes left in the game, with Thompkins getting three yards on a short screen and Sterns and Geiger getting no targets at all? Meanwhile, the Bucs gave 12 carries and three catches to running back Patrick Laird, a veteran who wasn’t signed out of a tryout at rookie minicamp in May and joined the team two weeks into training camp, only after Kenjon Barner was lost to injury. There are times you want to evaluate players, and there are times when you don’t want the rest of the league to be able to evaluate players.

The Bucs have three undersized undrafted rookie receivers — @jerrethsterns, @GrandmasterDT @KaylonGeiger3 — turning heads in preseason. How they got all three for $23,000 and how motivated they are to shine: “We’ve all got that same chip on our shoulder.” https://t.co/UKu8yRf2hB

— Greg Auman (@gregauman) August 19, 2022

Reading into players held out with injury

Bowles had said that all healthy players would play Saturday, so it was curious that second-year outside linebacker Joe Tryon-Shoyinka was kept out of the game, though the move was said to be precautionary and nothing that would impact the season opener in two weeks. Two top receivers were held out in Russell Gage (hamstring) and Chris Godwin (knee), but both are still in play to go against the Cowboys in the opener.

Godwin took another step this week, practicing in 11-on-11 drills while wearing a non-contact jersey, but Bowles didn’t know whether he’d be ready to play against Dallas.

“He’s been working out every day. He’s one of the hardest workers on the team,” he said. “It’s going to be hard to hold him back (in Week 1) if he’s healthy.”

The lone healthy scratch of the night was fourth-string quarterback Ryan Griffin, who has more than 3,000 career passing yards but didn’t take a snap in preseason, the Bucs putting a priority on giving Trask as much work as possible. Griffin, a Bucs backup since 2015, is headed to the practice squad for a second straight season as a valued member of the quarterback room.

Rough start for rookie Rachaad White

It was telling that White, a third-round pick from Arizona State, was the second back into the game after Leonard Fournette played the opening series and left. That second drive didn’t go well, as the Colts got into the backfield quickly and White was dropped for a 5-yard loss, then a 2-yard loss, then no gain on a third-down run.

White had better production on his third drive, getting runs of 5 and 9 yards before giving way to Vaughn on the team’s lone touchdown drive. He also handled the opening kickoff, returning it to the 22-yard line, and was pleased with his first preseason.

“I thought it was smooth. It was football, you know? It happens, starts like that,” White said. “For me, it’s not about the start, but the finish. My O-line, they adjusted, everybody adjusted and we got kind of rolling a little bit. This helped me adjust to the game, different speed, and rookies and me in general got a head start on seeing the speed of play.”

Does Jose Borregales get claimed off waivers?

What seemed like a compelling battle for kicking duties 15 days ago ended up with what looks like an easy win for veteran Ryan Succop, who didn’t miss a kick and showed off an extended range with a 52-yard field goal in Nashville. After a promising start, hitting a 55-yarder against the Dolphins, challenger Jose Borregales had a 49-yard game-winner doink off the upright as time expired against Miami, and then Saturday, he missed again, with a 52-yard attempt going just barely wide right.

Other NFL teams are scrambling to find kickers, with the Jaguars claiming two off waivers this past week as other teams made their cuts to 80 players and the Cowboys without a solid answer as well. Could Borregales end up kicking against the Bucs in the season opener in Dallas? If he’s waived as expected, he would have a longer made field goal in preseason (55 yards) than any other available option. If he clears waivers, the Bucs could bring him back on the practice squad, where he spent all of last season, at the ready if Succop were to sustain an injury.

More notes on position battles

With the Bucs expected to use a third safety as the primary nickel defensive back, the competition for the starting corner job opposite Carlton Davis is a close one, and Sean Murphy-Bunting appears to be ahead of Jamel Dean for that job.

Murphy-Bunting started Saturday and left with the starters after only eight snaps, with Dean following and being quickly removed after only eight snaps as well. Murphy-Bunting didn’t have a tackle and Dean had one before giving way to backups.

The competition for the swing tackle job as the top backup at both tackle spots appears to be going to Josh Wells, who got to start at right tackle with Tristan Wirfs held out as he recovers from an oblique injury. Wells stayed in and moved to left tackle after Donovan Smith left after the opening series, with backup Fred Johnson stepping in at right tackle and playing a game-high 46 offensive snaps.

If everyone’s healthy, Leverett and Wells are likely the top backups at tackle and the interior, respectively. Is the eighth OL then Johnson, or versatile Brandon Walton, who again played at multiple positions coming off the bench?

And if the last defensive back spot is decided on defensive merits, that spot will likely either go to veteran Dee Delaney, who played as both an outside corner and nickel with three tackles, or a safety like Turner or Cooper, who tied for the team lead with five tackles and a sack.

(Photo of Kyle Trask: Marc Lebryk / USA Today)

This content was originally published here.

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