TAMPA — Training camp is over, and so is the first preseason under new coach Lovie Smith. So, as the regular season draws near, what have we learned about the 2014 Buccaneers? And, just as important, what have we yet to learn?
Let’s take a look.
What have we learned?
The defense could be special — The first-team defense allowed just one field goal in 15 series of work during the preseason. Along the way, it was nothing short of dominant against the run, allowing just 2.2 yards per carry. The pass rush wasn’t quite what the Bucs are expecting or need, but this unit did prove itself to be capable of forcing game-altering takeaways — and lots of them.
Gerald McCoy’s best is yet to come — McCoy has earned consecutive trips to the Pro Bowl. So what’s next for the leader of the defense? Judging by his preseason, when he had three tackles for loss, a sack and a forced fumble in about a dozen series, NFL Defensive Player of the Year might not be out of the question. McCoy is already the Bucs’ best defender. Might he be the NFC’s best as well?
Running back Doug Martin is back — And he might be better than ever. The Bucs always knew Martin could run the ball, and nine months after suffering a season-ending shoulder injury, he proved he can still do that exceptionally well. But he also proved himself to be a much-improved pass catcher. If the line can open holes for him, Martin could replicate his rookie season and gain nearly 2,000 total yards again.
The kids are all right — Rookie wide receiver Mike Evans and rookie tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins never looked out of place in the offense. Both are still learning the nuances of their positions, and all while adjusting to the increased speed and intensity of the NFL. But that never kept them from making the kind of big plays they were brought in to make.
All that concern about the guard play was justified — Since Carl Nicks retired two days into training camp, the Bucs have changed the projected starters at left and right guard three times each. It seems as if they have finally settled on a tandem of Logan Mankins at left guard and Patrick Omameh at right guard, but another change at right guard could come if Omameh doesn’t prove himself worthy of the job.
What we still don’t know
What’s the offense look like? — Offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford said before the start of the third preseason game that he had only unveiled about 20 percent of the offense to that point. The Bucs have succeeded in keeping their attack a mystery, which was a preseason goal of theirs, but we still don’t know if the plays they have yet to show us will allow them to move the ball and the chains.
Can the front four rush the passer? — Outside of McCoy, who had one sack and two quarterback hits, no one on the defensive front made an impact as a pass rusher this preseason. The biggest disappointment was right end Michael Johnson, who had half a sack. The Bucs got more pass-rush production out of the likes of backups Larry English and Scott Solomon, both of whom had a pair of sacks. That’s not good.
Can QB Josh McCown get the job done? — The Bucs are hoping McCown can replicate the breakout season he had in Chicago last year, when he compiled a 109.0 passer rating (third best in the league) while filling in for an injured Jay Cutler. Based on what we saw of him in the preseason, there’s no way of knowing if McCown can do that. His line seldom, if ever, gave him a chance to prove himself one way or the other.
Is Patrick Murray better than Connor Barth? — Barth was money, literally and figuratively. And that might be why he’s gone. But $2 million doesn’t seem like too much for the reliability he provided. Not only was Barth the most consistent kicker in franchise history, he also was one of the most clutch — and from anywhere on the field. Murray is an unproven commodity. Sure, he got the job done in college, but how clutch will he be when the pressure is on and the game is on the line? No one knows for sure.
Can the offensive line jell in time? — Smith says he doesn’t buy the talk about an offensive line needing time to jell and develop chemistry. He better hope he’s right, because his yet-again revamped offensive line has a week to get ready for one of the best pass rushes in the league. The Bucs are counting on Mankins to make a seamless transition and vastly upgrade this unit’s play, but there are no guarantees that will happen.