TAMPA, Fla. — If the preseason opener was a reason to cringe, then this was an excuse to exhale.
If the preseason opener was a reason to fear for quarterback Josh McCown’s life, then this was a night to regain some faith that the veteran will remain in one piece throughout the fall.
The offensive line was the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ top story entering their second preseason game Saturday against the Miami Dolphins at Raymond James Stadium, and the first-team group fared better in a 20-14 loss. This wasn’t a spotless performance, of course, but it represents improvement. It’s a start.
"It’s about our starters and how they played, and our starters played better this week," Bucs coach Lovie Smith said. "They made major improvement from last week. So I’m pretty excited about that."
Bucs guard Oniel Cousins saw the progression, too. The development encourages him.
"We were on point with communication," Cousins said. "It’s never going to be perfect. But I think the techniques were a little bit better, and we’re on the same page. And when we’re on the same page, we can play fast, and we can go."
Granted, the bar was low for the Bucs on this night. Basic flow would have been an upgrade over the mess the Bucs showed in the first quarter against the Jacksonville Jaguars at EverBank Field. Saturday, improved execution was seen against the Dolphins in the time starters remained on the field. So, mission accomplished.
"It was better," McCown said. "It was more of what we need to start looking like. We’re still not there yet, obviously. We’ll take a look at the tape and clean some things up for sure, but it’s a good feeling to finish with a touchdown. It was Buc football. That’s what we want it to be."
Here are some observations from the Bucs’ second preseason game against Miami …
1. Gerald McCoy remains a beast.
He was a standout in the Bucs’ loss to the Jaguars, and on Saturday, he picked up where he left off. Face it: He has been the story of the Bucs’ preseason, and if these early weeks are any indication, he’s going to have a monster year.
He had three tackles with one sack Saturday, and he forced a fumble from quarterback Ryan Tannehill that led to the Bucs’ opening touchdown after a four-play, 25-yard drive. Miami is dealing with its own offensive line concerns, so McCoy’s dominance wasn’t particularly a surprise. Still, it should be re-assuring that McCoy is doing what the Lovie Smith regime expected early: Establish himself as the face and heart of the Bucs’ defense.
Tampa Bay’s concern, at this point, should be keeping McCoy healthy. This would be a drastically different defense without him. The more he stays on the field with all that potential late in the season, the better.
2. Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh weren’t bad at guard.
After the issues in Jacksonville, most eyes were on the Bucs’ offensive line to see if improvement could be made. Cousins (left) and Omameh (right), for the most part, performed well at guard, and overall, problems on the line weren’t as glaring as what occurred during the loss to the Jaguars.
That’s not to say Cousins and Omameh are the sudden answers. Expect the Bucs to use the final two preseason games to continue to evaluate their combinations at the position. No doubt, the line will continue to be watched closely, and it remains one of Tampa Bay’s largest question marks in the days before Week 1.
Still, Smith said he wanted to see progress with the line, and it’s fair to say he saw it with the top unit Saturday. McCown was sacked just once, and he fared better in completing 5 of 7 passes for 46 yards and one touchdown.
Bucs fans, at least on this night, could step away from the ledge.
3. Wide receiver Mike Evans flashed potential.
The rookie showed something interesting early in the second quarter. He leaped high to cradle a pass from quarterback Mike Glennon and burst toward the end zone for an apparent touchdown. However, the ball was punched loose along the sideline before he crossed the goal line.
Eventually, the touchdown call was reversed, and the Dolphins were awarded a touchback.
This is a perfect teaching moment for Evans, who should rise as the Bucs’ No. 2 wide receiver this year. Yes, a turnover is never a good thing, but in this instance, Evans showed the burst that the Bucs expected when they drafted him seventh overall this year.
Evans will learn about protecting the ball in time. This was a typical rookie mistake, and seasoning will come. Still, the sequence showed exactly what the Bucs need this season: An alternative to Vincent Jackson to stretch the field and provide home-run possibility. In that way, a seemingly negative play should be remembered as a positive.
4. Will the Bucs’ pass rush show up this preseason?
As good as McCoy has been through two games, the Bucs should want to see more from their first-team defensive line. How about some pressure from defensive end Michael Johnson? What about a push from defensive tackle Clinton McDonald?
There’s still time, but it’s worrisome that a rush from others outside of McCoy has failed to materialize. Smith has said repeatedly that defensive-line pressure is necessary for his scheme to succeed. So far, there remains much to be desired in this area.
Make no mistake, defense remains this team’s strength, but there’s room to improve. Tannehill was sacked just once, on McCoy’s bull rush that proved to be the Bucs’ play of the game.
We’ll learn in time, but if others fail to generate pressure, it will be interesting to see how that affects how opponents handle McCoy. Yes, the Bucs benefit from McCoy, a tremendous asset. But they must receive more from other members of the line to make this defense everything it can be.
5. Next week will be revealing.
The Bucs will take part in their so-called dress rehearsal next Saturday against the Buffalo Bills. The starters received more action on this night than in their preseason opener in Jacksonville — they played into the early parts of the second quarter against Miami — but these are too brief of glimpses to glean anything substantial.
We’ve received teases: McCoy is dominant, the offensive line remains a work in progress, defense will be the strength of this team, and McCown has shown an ability to evade pressure and create on the run.
Still, we still have so much to learn. Don’t expect everything to be revealed against Buffalo, but the game should be a more telling showing of what the Bucs should be come the regular season.
The Bucs could have some health problems to worry about before they head north. Running back Mike James (shoulder), defensive end William Gholston (shoulder), safety Major Wright (back) and linebacker Brandon Magee (ankle) all sustained injuries Saturday, so it will be interesting to learn how serious those will be.
But the faster these games resemble urgent situations, the better.