The Race to 10 was so 2010. This year, the Buccaneers' goal is simpler, yet more difficult: win the NFC South. That way they can be assured of reaching the playoffs whether they win 10 games or not.
The Bucs looked the part of a division winner in a 25-0 win at Kansas City in their preseason opener, but stumbled badly in last week's 31-14 loss to New England at Raymond James Stadium. For Saturday night's game against Miami, Tampa Bay will have a detailed game plan, so fans should get a better idea where the team stands.
As usual, winning is important, but evaluating talent is the ultimate goal. With that in mind, forget the scoreboard and focus on these five critical areas of play for the Buccaneers.
The Bucs were outscored 73-43 during the first quarter last season and the trend has carried over this preseason. The Bucs started miserably against the Patriots last week and have been outscored 21-10 in the first quarter of the preseason. Coach Raheem Morris addressed the problem during meetings and is eager to see the Bucs break the habit. He isn't necessarily looking for 80-yard scoring drives or three-and-outs from his defense, but will be happy if the offense strings together a few first downs and the defense avoids giving up long drives and several scores.
Early against the Patriots, the Bucs defense had several chances to finish plays that literally slipped through tacklers' hands. Tackling is among the things teams practice the least during preseason, but that's not an excuse. Tackling is a fundamental part of the game, and the Bucs' regulars have only this game and a few practices left to get it right.
The offensive line
OK, so maybe the Bucs didn't game plan for the Patriots. That doesn't explain the play of Tampa Bay's offensive line. With the exception of left guard Ted Larsen, the line is the team's one true veteran unit. Last week, however, the Bucs were beaten badly off the ball, their technique was a mess and, despite repeated attempts, they never adjusted to what the Patriots were doing. Against the Dolphins, the starting line will play for as much as three quarters. If the Bucs don't improve, it could be a sign of tough sledding ahead.
It remains possible cornerback Aqib Talib will be suspended for the start of the regular season, disciplined for his role in a March shooting incident in Texas. That means the Bucs could need a replacement for arguably their best defender. Nothing new there. Tampa Bay was 4-1 last season in games without Talib, proof their talent runs deep in the secondary. Still, coaches would like to see potential replacements such as E.J. Biggers, Elbert Mack, Myron Lewis, D.J. Johnson and Anthony Gaitor play well, just as reinforcement. Johnson and Gaitor have earned special praise for stellar play in camp workouts. If they can carry that level of play over to a game, it will be a sign the Bucs are prepared.
The "new" guys
Tampa Bay will get its first preseason look at several key contributors, including WR Arrelious Benn, TE Kellen Winslow and DT Brian Price. The Bucs held them out of the first two preseason games, mostly as a precaution, because of medical issues that have the potential to sideline them for large chunks of the coming season. The priority is for all three to come out of this game unscathed. At the same time, though, coaches want to see Benn make big yards after the catch, Winslow make plays on third down and in traffic and Price add a new wrinkle to the pass rush.