Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Bucs-Dolphins: Plan B looks workable in preseason opener

MIAMI — Everybody needs a backup plan, something that can steady the nerves and bring calm when there is calamity.

For the Bucs, the guy with the real spare tire is 35-year-old Ryan Fitzpatrick, whose job is to keep all the wheels from falling off this season while Jameis Winston serves his three-game suspension to start the year.

"I feel good,'' Fitzpatrick said before Thursday's preseason opener against the Dolphins. "The biggest thing with the reps with me is how does your arm feel? Are you throwing too much? Definitely not. The reps have stepped up a little bit, but not a ton. Now the reps I do take are a little more meaningful . … I feel really good physically. The arm feels great, and going into year 14, I couldn't ask my body to feel any better, probably.''

In Thursday's 26-24 win, the Bucs couldn't have asked Fitzpatrick to perform much better. He connected on his first six passes and had another one dropped in only two series of play. Fitzpatrick finished 6-of-8 for 55 yards and led the Bucs to a touchdown on their first possession. He also scrambled — yes, scrambled — twice for 11 yards.

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But Ryan Griffin, usually the third quarterback, stole the show. He completed 20 of 26 passes for 176 yards and a touchdown while leading the Bucs to Chandler Catanzaro's winning 26-yard field goal with 23 seconds left in the game.

"Start with that,'' coach Dirk Koetter said. "Griffin, I thought, was outstanding. Twenty out of 26, primarily with the third group. I also thought 'Fitz' and Jameis did fine. They took us down and scored, both guys. The quarterbacks, I don't think we missed too many.''

It was a small sample size, to be sure.

Winston entered the game in the second quarter. He led the Bucs to a touchdown and a field goal on his first two series. Thanks to what looks to be a much more solid defense, Winston took advantage of great field position. His first three drives started near midfield.

Despite the Bucs having four of their top six offensive tackles injured, Winston was efficient, going 11 of 13 passing for 102 yards. Griffin, who will serve as the No. 2 behind Fitzpatrick, threw a 10-yard touchdown pass to tight end Alan Cross.

"It's a nice problem to have trying to figure out who to get the ball to,'' Fitzpatrick said. "We've got some really good players on this team, and we're excited going into this year.''

The quarterback position will be the big story for the Bucs until Winston returns for the Sept. 30 game against the Bears.

"Jameis has been great,'' Fitzpatrick said. "There hasn't been a change with him in terms of the way he's attacking the game, the way he's been in the meeting room, the amount of time he's put in. The amount of work he's putting in right now has been awesome.

"When we first started practicing, the one thing we kind of stressed to each other was open lines of communication. If there's something that was either bothering me or there was something we needed to change, I had open lines of communication with Dirk and Jameis, and I think those guys were the same with me, with each other. It's been fluid, and we continue to work through it.''

If Thursday provided evidence of anything, it's that the Bucs look like a team that may be improved enough to overcome not having their franchise quarterback for a while. Granted, the Dolphins aren't the Saints, Eagles or Steelers, the Bucs' first three regular-season opponents.

But the Bucs' defense appears to be much improved.

Before the game, defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul posed for a picture at Hard Rock Stadium with 11 family members. Then he kept showing up in the Dolphins' team photo. Pierre-Paul had three tackles and a quarterback pressure. Gerald McCoy had a sack and is no doubt rejuvenated by Pierre-Paul's presence.

But let's not get carried away. Miami used three quarterbacks in its first three series. Ryan Tannehill started and moved the ball well. David Fales wasn't too impressive. Brock Osweiler? Even less so.

Miami actually had an edge at the half in total yards (203-194) and first downs (15-14), but much of that came after the Bucs' starters left the game.

The Bucs' first-team defense held the Dolphins to a field goal. Kicker Jason Sanders also missed a 53-yard field-goal attempt wide left. Tampa Bay benefitted from a fumble by Kalen Ballage, who lost the ball trying to leap over cornerback Ryan Smith.

"Our first team (defense) was a little bend-but-don't-break, but they got the job done,'' Koetter said.

The Bucs' ground game never really got on track, but they did get rushing touchdowns from Peyton Barber and rookie Ronald Jones. "Last year, we did not finish in the end zone with the running back," guard Ali Marpet said, "and that's something as an offensive line that we wanted to do more this year, and I think we'll be able to.''

There were mistakes, to be sure. Rookie receiver Justin Watson lost a fumble that resulted in a 23-yard field goal by Sanders to cut the Bucs' lead to 16-13 to start the second half. Catanzaro missed his first kick with Tampa Bay, an extra point that was wide left. Curse? What curse?

"I have to kick the ball better, first and foremost," Catanzaro said. "I'll build on it. I'm thankful for the opportunity at the end that Ryan Griffin and the offense provided for us."

There also was a surprise. Offensive coordinator Todd Monken was the play-caller instead of Koetter, who plans to keep that role in the regular season. He seemed to have a good feel for Fitzpatrick and Winston.

That's a good thing, because you always need a backup plan.

Contact Rick Stroud at rstroud@tampabay.com. Follow @NFLStroud.

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