Bright spots brief for Bucs in disappointing effort

There was some good, some bad, and let the crawl to Week 1 continue.

After a disappointing showing by the first-team units in New England last week and a bizarre MRSA scare at One Buc Place revealed Thursday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers returned for their “dress rehearsal” preseason game Saturday against the Miami Dolphins. The Bucs’ best moment might have been one of the briefest: Guard Davin Joseph, who sustained a season-ending knee injury last August, returned in the first quarter. It was his first game action since he was placed on injured reserve last year.

Meanwhile, running back Brian Leonard looked solid in his work to earn the No. 2 spot behind Doug Martin. Other than him, however, the Bucs’ offense was listless for most of the night in gaining 160 yards in 57 plays. By comparison, the Dolphins totaled 312 yards in 82 plays.

Here are five thoughts from the Bucs’ 17-16 victory at Sun Life Stadium in Miami Gardens, Fla:

1. Joseph’s return is a fantastic sign for the Bucs. He experienced live action for the first time since sustaining a torn right patellar tendon in a preseason game against the New England Patriots last August. His appearance, although abbreviated, was a positive development for Tampa Bay, especially with guard Carl Nicks out indefinitely with the revelation that he has a MRSA infection on his left foot.

Until the infected blister setback, it appeared Nicks had made more progress than Joseph in training camp. The possibility sounds promising: Nicks and Joseph, with four Pro Bowl appearances between them, on the field at the same time. One piece was present Saturday. When will the other return? And how effective will he be? Both answers remain a mystery.

2. Josh Freeman and the Bucs’ offense overall were poor again. Especially early, he seemed to carry a more confident pocket presence than he showed in the loss to the New England Patriots last Friday. Still, this was another frustrating night for anyone seeking confirmation that he has made strides in August.

The numbers were far from pretty: We went 6-of-16 passing for 59 yards. Some glaring drops did nothing to help his cause, but especially late in his time on the field in the second half, there was little to like from this latest preseason effort. Again, this is the preseason. Again, strong judgments about him should not be formed until the regular season. But this performance was disappointing, and it will only act as fuel for some who are quick to criticize.

3. Special teams were a plus. The Bucs’ unit was spotty at times in the first two preseason games, but kudos to assistant Dave Wannstedt for having his group prepared to be opportunistic in the first half.

Two muffed punts by Miami led to Tampa Bay’s 10 first-half points. Eric Page looks promising as a returner, and the Bucs escaped without another blocked punt. The argument can be made that the Dolphins’ errors were more a case of their carelessness than the Bucs’ execution. But on a night when Tampa Bay’s offense showed little spark, the Bucs gave themselves a short field because of the Dolphins’ mishaps.

4. Akeem Spence was a bright spot. He finished with four tackles and two tackles for loss, looking like a bargain for the Bucs, who snatched him up in the fourth round last April. They envision him being a replacement at nose tackle for Roy Miller, who was lost to the Jacksonville Jaguars in free agency.

Spence’s physicality is something to watch as he continues to grow this season. He appears versatile and aggressive in the position, which means he will only improve as he progresses in his career. We’re only seeing glimpses now, but if Spence reaches his potential, the ceiling could be special.

5. Leonard showed some nice things as the Bucs’ potential No. 2 running back. This has been one of the preseason’s most interesting competitions, during which Leonard, Mike James and Peyton Hillis have stated their cases.

With Doug Martin not playing Saturday, Leonard and James were given significant time to show what they could do. Leonard displayed more burst to the hole while James hesitated at times. Leonard had 38 yards on 10 carries with a touchdown, James 17 yards on seven carries and Hillis 28 yards on seven carries. With one preseason game left, Leonard looks like the favorite to earn this job, though all the reserves should receive substantial time next Thursday against Washington.

You can follow Andrew Astleford on Twitter @aastleford or email him at aastleford@gmail.com.