Buccaneers observations: Team’s best effort on display against Bills

Buffalo Bills quarterback EJ Manuel (3) is hit by Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Adrian Clayborn (94) as he passes the ball during the first half.

Kevin Hoffman/Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

This was more like it.

A swarming defense. A capable offense. A team that created havoc for an opponent in more ways than one.

Saturday, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers showed it all in racing to a 24-0 halftime lead with first-team players appearing all of the first half during a 27-14 victory over the Buffalo Bills at Ralph Wilson Stadium.

If this was the dress rehearsal, then the main act will be worth viewing.

The Bucs’ preseason, before this day, had left much to be desired. The defense had showed signs of being dominant, but there were some questions outside of stars like defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. The offense showed little because of major issues with the line. The special teams weren’t memorable.

This was different. This was better.

Sure, these Bucs remain a work in progress. But this was a fine way to handle the all-important third preseason game, considered the most important because of its attempt to simulate a regular-season experience.

Here are some observations from the Bucs’ preseason game against Buffalo …

1. Clear improvement was seen on both sides of the ball.

In the first half, the Bucs outscored the Bills 24-0 and out-gained the Bills 151 yards to 82, but numbers don’t do the rout justice. This was a methodical beat down, and Buffalo looked overmatched in every way.

Box score

Anyone who has followed the Bucs’ progress since training camp had to know the first-team defense would be dominant. Of course, that group lived up to the hype. Tampa Bay’s defensive line made quarterback EJ Manuel look silly, and if the Bucs can replicate this performance more than a few times throughout the fall, they’ll win plenty of games without scoring many points.

McCoy looks Week 1-ready, but defensive tackle Clinton McDonald and defensive ends Michael Johnson and Adrian Clayborn showed flashes as well. That’s a good sign. The more who join this act, the better.

The first-team offense, meanwhile, looked the best it had all preseason by far. Quarterback Josh McCown completed 13 of 16 passes for 112 yards with one touchdown and an interception. Running back Doug Martin had 12 carries for 38 yards. The Bucs also pieced together an impressive 11-play, 82-yard drive near the end of the first half, capped by a pretty 24-yard touchdown pass from McCown to wide receiver Mike Evans.

This was an encouraging development all around.

2. Kudos to McDonald for becoming a factor in the middle.

McCoy has been the story of Tampa Bay’s preseason, but McDonald finished with five tackles (two solo) Saturday, showing why coach Lovie Smith was eager to pair the fifth-year pro with McCoy in the teeth of Tampa Bay’s defensive line.

It’s fascinating to consider how dangerous the Bucs’ line can become if McCoy and McDonald are causing pain together. In addition to making his disruption ability known, McDonald showed good awareness in scooping up a fumble from Manuel and returning it 17 yards for a touchdown to give the Bucs a 17-0 lead in the second quarter.

McDonald has spoken about how Bucs’ defensive linemen take pride in considering themselves rush men, and they showed it against a weak Buffalo offense. Now the trick is repeating the feat over and over again.

Photo gallery

If McDonald is on his game all season, the Bucs’ defensive front will reach another level.

3. The offense showed improvement, but the Bucs will remain a defensive-driven team.

At least early, expect many Bucs games in the regular season to resemble what was seen for much of the first half Saturday: Tampa Bay will showcase a dominant defense and hope that its offense, still figuring things out, will do enough to push the result in the Bucs’ favor.

The sustained drive late in the first half was encouraging, but the Bucs should aim for more consistency in the area as the regular season begins. Guards Oniel Cousins and Patrick Omameh aren’t perfect, but the weakness at the position isn’t as glaring as it was after a loss to the Jacksonville Jaguars in the first preseason game. McCown was sacked just once, and the improved protection helped as he totaled an impressive stat line.

Saturday, we saw a pattern emerge for what Smith has called "Buc ball." That’s strong defensive play with complementary offensive production, and both elements were on display this evening. Manuel finished 19-of-28 passing for 198 yards with one touchdown and one interception, but most of those numbers came in the second half against the weaker second-team defense. He was sacked four times for a loss of 17 yards, a more telling stat.

4. There will be some tough choices to make when the Bucs trim their roster to 75 men by 4 p.m. Tuesday.

The better defensive end Larry English plays, the more difficult it is to justify Da’Quan Bowers’ place on the roster. Bowers, always a name of interest, has been sidelined with a groin injury most of the preseason. He showed sparks against the Jaguars, specifically when lining up at defensive tackle, but he has made few memories standing with a floppy hat on the sidelines since then.

Another interesting name to watch will be running back Jeff Demps, a former track star. Perhaps Charles Sims’ absence for 12-14 weeks because of ankle surgery will help Demps’ prospects of staying on the roster. Still, he had a notable drop in the second quarter near the end zone that would have helped him create a needed highlight.

Overall, the drop off is noticeable between Tampa Bay’s first and second teams on both sides of the ball. That has to be somewhat worrisome for the Bucs if they’re concerned about building strong depth. Under backup quarterback Mike Glennon, the Bucs only mustered three points in the second half, and reserves on defense allowed the Bills to score 14 quick points in the third quarter.

There’s more work to be done among the players who will fill roles behind the Bucs’ top names.

Quick draw

5. After two concerning preseason games, the narrative has changed.

Bucs fans can breathe a little easier. The first two preseason games offered many reasons to provide pause: The offensive line, specifically the guard positions, looked bad; the defensive line at times outside of McCoy was underwhelming; and McCown’s ability to lead the offense on sustained drives was questioned.

It’s revealing that the Bucs showed marked progress between the mess lived in Jacksonville and the dominance displayed in the first half in Buffalo. Top players asserted themselves, which is exactly what Smith wants.

Likely, not much will be learned Thursday when the Bucs close the preseason against the Washington Redskins at Raymond James Stadium. Starters shouldn’t receive much playing time, so this was a good way for the top units to go out with a pleasing memory before the results count for real Sept. 7 against the Carolina Panthers at Raymond James Stadium.

Sure, Tampa Bay remains a work in progress. Despite gains made Saturday, the Bucs’ offense must find a way to do more. But the defense looks regular-season-ready, which should be exciting for Smith and others who share a locker room with him.

Next up: vs. Washington next Thursday.

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