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 have looked every bit the part of a division title contender at times this preseason, but there have been other times when they've looked like nothing more than division also-rans.
Not that it really matters. The goal this time of year is to evaluate talent and determine roster spots, and never is that more the case than during the fourth preseason game, which is on tap tonight against Washington.
So, ignore the scoreboard and focus instead on these five critical areas of play for the Buccaneers.
The running backs
Imagine, for a moment, the Bucs without LeGarrette Blount. If that thought makes you a little anxious, you're not alone. Though veteran Earnest Graham is capable of filling the backup role, the Bucs are hopeful someone from the group of Kregg Lumpkin, Allen Bradford and Mossis Madu will have a breakout performance to ease their worries. Even so, the Bucs still might scour the waiver wire to see who is available. That's how dire the situation in the backfield has become.
Now is the time to prepare for the possible loss through free agency of backup quarterback Josh Johnson next season. Though Johnson likely will play the first half tonight, the second will belong to Rudy Carpenter. Third on the depth chart, Carpenter has looked quite capable at times this preseason, but the Bucs are looking for consistency from him. Carpenter engineered a late winning touchdown drive to beat the Dolphins. If he can match that effort, he could secure a spot on the team and perhaps a future with it as well.
The tight ends
There's a real battle going on here. The Bucs will carry at least three tight ends, including starter Kellen Winslow and third-round draft pick Luke Stocker. That means Daniel Hardy, Ryan Purvis and Nathan Overbay are fighting for one spot. Purvis and Overbay have more experience than Hardy, but Hardy was a draft pick and the Bucs really like his size, hands and potential. It's possible the Bucs could keep a fourth tight end, but there's no guarantee. The Bucs are looking for someone here who can block and catch. Purvis is probably the best of the bunch, but Hardy has more upside.
The Bucs know CB Aqib Talib will not be suspended during the 2011 season, but they still might need to identify a replacement. Talib has been sidelined the entire preseason by a hamstring strain, so Tampa Bay must be prepared to start the season without its top corner. The team will continue to look closely at backup candidates such as E.J. Biggers, Myron Lewis and Elbert Mack. Untried youngsters D.J. Johnson and Anthony Gaitor have played exceptionally well this preseason and may force the Bucs to be cornerback heavy on the final 53-man roster.
No, it's not the most exciting part of the game, especially now that five out every six kickoffs result in a touchback. But this is still the area where most young players make the team, so these are desperate times for young roster hopefuls. A good return, a blocked kick or punt or a good tackle could mean the difference between making a team and not. To make it fun, write down the name and number of any player that makes a splash play on special teams. Chances are, if he made you notice him, he'll win a job on Saturday.