TAMPA – For the better part of two weeks, wide receiver Chris Owusu was as impressive a player as there was in Buccaneers training camp. He outran, outleaped and altogether outplayed just about every defender he went up against.
Then came the preseason opener Thursday night against Baltimore.
Owusu made one eye-popping play, catching a 41-yard Mike Glennon pass, but he also dropped a pass, muffed a punt and suffered a high ankle sprain that could force him out of Friday night’s game against New England.
The ability to match or improve on your practice play is what coaches look for most in players during preseason games, and Owusu’s failure to match or improve his play against the Ravens cost him some ground in the battle for the third receiver spot.
The leader there continues to be Kevin Ogletree, who likely put some distance between himself, Tiquan Underwood and Owusu on Thursday by doing precisely what the coaches wanted him to do — elevate his game.
After a relatively non-descript two weeks of camp, Ogletree led all Bucs receivers with five catches for 65 yards against the Ravens, including a 22-yard grab on a third-down play in which he helped quarterback Josh Freeman keep the play alive by extending his route.
“You can see that he has ability and that’s why we went out and got him,’’ Bucs coach Greg Schiano said of the free agent the Bucs signed away from the Cowboys in March. “And he did the things (in the game) that we thought he could do.’’
Ogletree wasn’t the only player locked in a position battle to fare well against the Ravens.
Rookie place-kicker Derek Dimke did the same thing, hitting on all three of his field goal attempts.
For now at least, those kicks have given Dimke a bit of an edge over Lawrence Tynes in the battle for the place-kicker’s job. But Tynes, should he eventually overcome the toe injury that has sidelined him, could catch up quickly.
Unlike Dimke, a rookie out of Illinois, Tynes has nine years of experience under his belt and he has made some big kicks in that time, including two that sent the New York Giants to a Super Bowl.
“That (competition) will continue to heat up,’’ Schiano said. “I hope for a very, very hard decision there and that would mean that we’re going to be in good shape.”
Schiano also hopes to have to make a difficult decision at running back, where Brian Leonard may have taken the lead over rookie Mike James and veteran Peyton Hillis in the battle to back up starter Doug Martin.
Leonard ran six times for 23 yards and a touchdown, and while those numbers aren’t necessarily special, the blitz pick-up he made that allowed Freeman to throw that 22-yard pass to Ogletree in the first quarter was.
Other difficult decisions might still have to be made at strongside linebacker, where Jonathan Casillas and Dekoda Watson are battling for the starter’s job, and at tight end, where Luke Stocker and Tom Crabtree are fighting for the lion’s share of snaps.
The situation at kick and punt returner remains unresolved as well, although Owusu’s muffed punt could mean that he’s been eliminated from that competition.
In two other battles, meanwhile, it seems decisions may already have been made.
The Bucs have all but decided that, at least for now, Glennon is their backup quarterback. Schiano said as much on Friday when he flat out stated that Dan Orlovsky is the team’s third quarterback.
Now, that could change, particularly if Glennon falters in some way. But if he continues to show the poise he displayed in the opener, he’ll likely retain his spot as Freeman’s backup.
The Bucs also seem to have settled on a starter’s role for rookie Johnthan Banks. As expected, Banks played sound against the pass and aggressive against the run against the Ravens.
That’s precisely what coaches were looking for and in cases like these, playing up to expectations is sometimes all a player needs to do to win a position battle.