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Bucs start off preseason schedule with sloppy loss to Eagles

It’s only preseason. Repeat that to yourself a few hundred times.

It doesn’t count. It’s just practice. It’s pretend football.

Got it?

The Bucs opened their preseason play Thursday night in the worst possible way, giving up a touchdown on a turnover inside a minute, then doing it again inside of five minutes in a 17-9 loss to the Philadelphia Eagles.

“Not how I drew it up,” said coach Dirk Koetter.

Yeah, yeah. It doesn’t count. But if you were hoping the Bucs would open their preseason looking like a team that had made great progress from last year’s 6-10 record, well, you’ll have to wait for another week.

Pretty much, this is how it went:

Worst start: Five seconds into the game, returner Kenny Bell fumbled the opening kickoff. The Eagles recovered, and three plays later, Ryan Matthews ran it in from the five.

Whoops, they did it again: On the Bucs’ second possession, quarterback Jameis Winston had the ball knocked away by Fletcher Cox, who recovered on the 12. Chase Daniels ran this one in for a 14-0 lead. In all, the Bucs had five turnovers in the game.

Best Hope: After his fumble, quarterback Jameis Winston actually played fairly well. He hit seven-of-nine passes for 97 yards, a rating of 148.6. He hit wide receiver Russell Sheppard with a 26-yard touchdown.

Running on Empty: The Bucs simply couldn’t run the ball against the Eagles. They ran it 21 times for 31 yards. Newly rich running back Doug Martin carried it five times for 13 yards, and six of those came on his first run.

Rough start: Roberto Aguayo (yes, he was drafted in the second round) hit the upright on his first NFL extra point. He did hit a 38-yard field goal later.

Best unit: The Bucs’ regular rotation had four sacks in the first half. “It would be hard to find fault with them,” said Koetter.

Déjà Vu: The Bucs, one of the most penalized teams in the NFL last year, were called 10 times for 92 yards.

Third and nowhere: The Bucs were three of 14 on third down.

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Bucs debut under Dirk Koetter, but the play matters more than the score

It is, of course, the biggest game of Dirk Koetter’s life. And we’ll all forget it in a matter of hours.

When Koetter leads his Tampa Bay Bucs onto the field against Philadelphia Thursday night, it will be notable because it’s Koetter’s first game. Just that.

Oh, you want to see the Bucs have more good plays than bad. You want certain individuals to shine. You want your team to win, because that’s always preferable to the alternative.

But, really, as you judge Koetter, this is what you want to see.

You want to see efficiency, especially in the end zone.

You want to see discipline, especially when it comes to penalties.

You want to see crispness, especially when it comes to play-calling.

You want the team to run well. You want to see a big pass or three. You want to see a pass rush. You want to see cornerbacks actually in the picture when the Eagles throw to their receivers.

But the final score? That isn’t going to be remembered very long.

Remember 1976? John McKay lost 13-7 to the Dolphins. But he went 2-4 in the preseason. The regular season wasn’t as good. He went 0-14.

Remember 1985? Leeman Bennett lost 42-27 to Pittsburgh on his way to a 1-3 preseason. And a 2-14 regular season.

In 1987, Ray Perkins lost 31-30 to Cincinnati, then won his next two games. He went 4-11 during the season.

In 1991, Richard Williamson’s team beat Cleveland 23-10 and went 3-1 in the preseason. He went 3-13, however.

A year later, Sam Wyche lost to Denver 31-10 on the way to a 1-3 preseason. In the regular season, his team went 5-11.

In 1996, Tony Dungy lost 13-10 to the Dolphins and went 1-3 in the preseason. He went 6-10 in the regular season.

In 2002, Jon Gruden beat Miami 14-10 in a 3-1 preseason. The Bucs went 12-4 and won the Super Bowl in his first year.

In 2009, Raheem Morris lost to Tennessee 27-20 in a 1-3 preseason. His first team went 3-13.

In 2012, Greg Schiano beat Miami 20-7 in a 2-2 preseason. His first team was 7-9.

In 2014, Lovie Smith lost 16-10 to Jacksonville in a 1-3 preseason. The Bucs were 2-14 in the regular season.

No one remembers any of them. Like most preseason games, the play — or lack of it — is far more important than the result. Remember, all that matters in preseason is that the tickets are full priced.

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Bucs have to improve in red zone to get better as a team

This is where it begins, in the shadow of the opponent’s goalposts.

On first down-and-opportunity. With the cannons firing. With hope in the air.

With the Tampa Bay Bucs, trying once again to stop treating the red zone like the dead zone.

The Bucs had a sprightly little offense a year ago, with Jameis Winston throwing for more than 4,000 and Doug Martin running for more than 1,400 and Mike Evans catching passes for more than 1,200. In all, the Bucs gained more yardage than all  but  four other NFL teams.

But not in the red zone. In the red zone, the Bucs were only the 22nd-best team in the league. Translation: Too many field goals, not enough touchdowns.

And this year? This year, the Bucs have to be better.

Bad news: In Tuesday’s practice, Tampa Bay was 0-for-9 in the end zone.

“My impression was the defense kicked butt,” coach Dirk Koetter said. “The offense was 0-for-9 inside the 10; that’s a great job by our defense.”

Okay, okay. That’s the problem with scrimmaging. Every time you feel good about one aspect (“Yay, the defense played great.”) there is another side of the ball to consider. (“Ouch. The sky is falling.”)

“Our defense did a great job today,” said tackle Demar Dotson. “We went 0-for-9, and they just had the better day today. We have to come out here and the next time we get the opportunity, we’ve got to do better. We’re not going to harp on it, we are just going to watch the film and get better at it.”

If there is a bright spot, the Bucs play the Eagles Thursday. Philadelphia was 31st in the league in red-zone defense last year (one spot ahead of the Bucs).

For Tampa Bay, however, the challenge is clear. Conquer the red zone. It leads to the end zone.

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Bucs have found a player in tight end Cameron Brate

Think of his career as a pass pattern.

In his first year, he was struggling to get off the line of scrimmage. In his second, he was fighting to get open.

Now, he has the ball in his hands, and he’s heading for the end zone.

Such has been the progression of tight end Cameron Brate, who is now starting for the Tampa Bay Bucs as they head into Thursday’s preseason opener against Philadelphia. Brate, a free agent out of Harvard, had 23 catches for 288 yards last year.

“It’s pretty crazy looking back,” Brate said. “Two years ago I was kind of an afterthought, my rookie year I didn’t get too many reps in practice, was just hoping to catch on [in] any way. Luckily I got practice squad, got to play in a couple games my rookie year. Then last year, [I] was kind of at the bottom of the depth chart again. It was a major bummer to get cut, but it ended up working out for me. Just tried to stay as positive as I could, given the situation. Yeah, it’s pretty cool looking back, just kind of how far I’ve come.”

So far, Brate is running ahead of veteran Luke Stocker and former second-round draft pick Austin Saferian-Jenkins.

“He’s a good player,” said Bucs’ coach Dirk Koetter. “He’s 6-5, he can run, he’s smart, he’s coachable, he’s consistent, [and] he knows where to be and when to be there. That’s important. Guys that don’t make mistakes and then when you get a chance to make plays you’ve got to make them and he does. A high percentage of the time when he gets a chance to make a play, he makes it.”

Koetter said that tight end might be one of the team’s deepest positions when Stocker, Seferian-Jenkins and rookie Dan Vitale.

“We’re transitioning,” Koetter said. “We’re going to be more of a two-tight end team, and we’re also going to be a three-wide out team, but we need depth. If we’re going to have a couple out there all the time, we need depth.”

Brate said he’s always been able to catch the ball.

“For whatever reason, I’ve always been able to catch a ball,” Brate said. “It just kind of comes second nature to me. It’s something I take pride in. I’m learning to deal with dropping passes a little better because it’s going to happen from time to time. But that’s definitely one of my better attributes is my ability to catch balls for sure.”

It also doesn’t hurt that Brate seems to have clicked with quarterback Jameis Winston.

“Working with Jameis is awesome, just to see his growth from last year to this year, especially at this point of the year last year we were turning the ball over a lot, and just his command of the offense is awesome,” Brate said..” And obviously great passer, very accurate, so it’s fun playing with him.”

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Bucs think Kwon Alexander’s loss made difference down the stretch

It wasn’t a coincidence, says head coach Dirk Koetter, that the Tampa Bay Bucs were a 6-6 team with Kwon Alexander last year and 0-4 without him.

The Bucs were winless during the last month when Alexander was suspended.

“I believe that wasn’t coincidence,” Koetter said. “I believe we missed him a lot. I think Kwon is a big cog in our defense to use your terms. He’s the quarterback – he’s Jameis [Winston] of the defense, so I think that definitely played a part in it.”

The defense, one of the biggest keys to the Bucs’ season, continued to take shape during Saturday’s practice. That defense, led by new coordinator Mike Smith, should be more aggressive than that of year ago.

For instance, defensive end Noah Spence continued to make his mark felt, even against the run.

“Noah, by standards, is an undersized defensive end, but I think he plays a lot bigger than his measurable,” Smith said. “He has a very good short punch, and he understands leverage, and he’s got quickness. He can move and run around blocks at times and make some plays and he’s also got strong enough hands and punch that he can hold the point. We’re going to have to be very careful about what we’re going to ask him to do early on in the season.”

Smith also said cornerbacks Brent Grimes and Alterraun Verner have played well together.

“I think they’ve progressed well,” Smith said. “It’s going to be interesting to see how we progress now that we basically put our package in and now we can start refining. We’ve got a lot of refinement to do as a defensive football team. We’ve got guys that we know are out of place and the casual fan might say ‘oh that was a great play ‘Well it was not necessarily the case.”

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Bucs’ linebacker Lavonte David thinks defense will be improved

When people talk about the Tampa Bay Bucs, they usually concentrate on the offense.

Second-year quarterback Jameis Winston, or running back Doug Martin, or wide receiver Mike Evans get a lot of discussion. But if the Bucs are going to be a better team than last year’s 6-10 record, it will be because of a fortified defense. The Bucs’ defense was only the 26th best scoring defense in the league last year, allowing 26.1 points per game.

Good news, then, that the defense is winning its share of battles.

“I don’t know, it’s all competitive out there,” said linebacker Lavonte David. “They win some; we win some. We’re jaw jabbing back and forth; I’m sure you all [are] hearing it out there. But that’s the main thing; it’s still competing. You’re competing out there, but you’re competing with your teammates. Those are the guys that you got to go to battle with on Sundays, so, for now, you can compete against each other, but when it’s time to go against an opponent we’re all together.”

David said that the Bucs are making more use of him this season than a year ago.

“It’s just the way the defense is,” David said. “At certain times and certain situations I may be used on the blitz, I may be used in pass coverage or I may be used in zone drops. But I feel like I’m more involved in certain things now, I’m getting a lot of action, getting a lot of plays thrown my way and stuff like that. So it’s pretty good, I like to take on challenges like that, and it helps me get better.”

David said he had been impressed with longtime teammate Gerald McCoy.

“I notice it a lot,” David said. “Nine-on-seven, 10-run drills, watching it on film, his get-off is amazing. His get-off and motor is amazing, he’s disrupting plays in the backfield, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be. We expect Gerald to do things like that, and it’s [not] going unnoticed, everybody sees it, and we expect him to do that down in and down out, and he’s doing it. Great things to come for us this season – a nod to him.”

David also had praise for new defensive end Robert Ayers.

“He’s dominant as well,” David said. “We’ve got a tandem of guys; (defensive end) Noah (Spence), Rob, ‘Mac’ (McCoy). We took a loss with [defensive end] George (Johnson) today, I’m not sure how serious his injury was, but he’s been doing good. You’ve got [defensive lineman] Will (Gholston), those guys have been working their tails off, they’re getting the pass rush and things in and also they’re doing a great job of stopping the run.”

In all, David said the communication is better, which has led to more takeaways.

“The communication aspect,” David said. “Knowing where guys are supposed to be, knowing what you’re supposed to do when a certain defense is called, talking, communicating, things like that. Knowing what you’re going to get from the offense, so when you learn your defense, you got to learn what offense can beat you with and things like that. So it gives us a chance to anticipate what we’re going to get hit with.”

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Cameron Brate running ahead of Austin Seferian-Jenkins with Bucs

Once a football team gets onto the field, a player’s resume has little to do with it.

Which is why Cameron Brate is the Tampa Bay Bucs starting tight end.

Brate was undrafted coming out of Harvard in 2014. He failed to stick with the New Orleans Saints before bouncing to Tampa Bay, where he caught all of one pass as a rookie.

Meanwhile, Austin Seferian-Jenkins was a second-round draft pick with tons of ability.

Yet, Seferian-Jenkins is watching Brate play these days.

“I don’t think there’s any big secret [that] Cam’s been working with the first group,” said coach Dirk Koetter. “We’re deep at tight end and Cam’s at the top of the depth right now.

“He’s making plays. He’s making plays, and he’s making them consistently, and he’s improving in the run game. His run blocking is improving. No one’s going to call him (former NFL tight end) Mark Bavaro, but he’s improving.”

Brate caught 23 passes last year. His work this summer has helped him pass Seferian-Jenkins.

“He’s working hard, he’s working at it,” Koetter said of Seferian-Jenkins. “Austin is trying to get better every day. Sometimes, luck of the draw, a guy may not get balls thrown to him some days, or he gets it thrown to him and it’s a bad throw or something like that. But Austin’s working at it, that’s all he can do right now. He’s just got to work. Anybody that’s fighting for a job, that’s all they can do.

“The guys that are playing the best are going to play. So catching up for some guys is knowing what they’re doing, catching up for some other guys is they got to play better, and I’d say he falls into that category.”

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Bucs’ Adam Humphries catches on as team’s No. 3 wide receiver

He came in through the back door: undrafted, unrecognized, unaccalimed.

But as of Monday, Adam Humphries is the Tampa Bay Bucs’ new third receiver.

Humphries, who caught 27 passes for 260 yards as a rookie, was named as the Bucs’ third receiver Monday by coach Dirk Koetter.

“Let’s just end the big mystery about this number three wide receiver, okay?” Koetter said. “Adam Humphries is going to be our number three wide receiver. You talk about the definition of consistent players, there’s Adam’s picture right there, [a] consistently strong player.

“Adam’s going to be our slot receiver and then the battle for four, five, six and beyond, there’s some really good competition.”

For Humphries, the opportunity came when receiver Louis Murphy, trying to overcome a knee injury, was placed on PUP.

“I’m not surprised by it at all,” quarterback Jameis Winston said. “Adam is a great player for us. He’s a third-down machine for us. He’s had a great camp and last year he was one of my best targets. You think about the first play of the year, me and that guy bounced back from that quickly and had a great season together.”

“That’s just how it is in this game. You’ve got to get back up and try again, and I definitely trust that guy with all my heart. I know Coach Koetter trusts him and this team trusts him. So that’s a big thing for him, I’m pretty sure when he hears that he’s going to work even harder.”

Humphries came to the Bucs as an undrafted free agent from Clemson.

“Obviously, that’s good to hear from the head man, but I’ve got to keep the edge and keep working hard every day, and I’ve got to earn the spot every day no matter what he says,” Humphries said. “I can mess up, or I can keep getting better, and that’s what I’m going to do.

I just came out here with an edge. When I came out here last year no one knew me, [I] didn’t really know anyone out here, so I just tried to work hard and get noticed. But it’s good to come in this year and be a guy that the quarterback can rely on and just earn that number three spot.”

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Bucs’ Gerald McCoy takes rookie end Noah Spence under his wing

A young defensive lineman trying to learn about the speed of the NFL can use himself a pace horse.

Noah Spence, meet Gerald McCoy.

Spence, the Tampa Bay Bucs’ second-round draft pick, spent time practicing with McCoy during the off-season. With McCoy’s reputation for working hard, who else would you pick?

“I did it on my own.” Spence said Sunday. “I knew I wanted to get a lot of good work in and he said he was staying here and he’s been doing pretty good for himself, so I was like, ‘Why not?’

“I learned that I can keep up, I learned that I could work, and I’m going to learn a lot about pass rush and run-stopping, stuff like that.”

McCoy said he has been impressed watching Spence.

“Noah is a guy that I’ve been watching during OTAs and stuff,” McCoy said last week. “He gets after the pass rusher really well. He’s nonstop, next play takes a deep breath and gets back down and does the same thing again, and that’s something that we obviously needed. And I feel like we trust it pretty well and we’re adding him, Rob (Ayers) and getting Jacquies (Smith) back healthy and having George (Johnson) coming along and those guys. Noah he’s been really promising, at meetings and stuff he’s very interactive he’s asking questions and he knows what he’s doing, so that’s pretty cool.”

 Spence, who was kicked out of the Big 10 for drug use, says he plays with a chip on his shoulder.

“I mean, you’ve got to do it, you’ve got to have a reason to come out here and work. Mine is for God and then after that it’s all I’ve been through. Then, it’s just coming out here and working with other guys on the team. You’ve got to play with a chip or else you’ll be no good.”

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Bucs’ coach Dirk Koetter likes defense, but not the team’s penalties

In their first practice in shoulder pads,  Tampa Bay Bucs’ coach Dirk Koetter liked that his team likes to use them.

What he didn’t like, however, was an old problem of the team: penalties.

Tampa Bay was one of the most penalized teams in NFL last season. It was one of the main criticisms of former coach Lovie Smith.

“What I liked was, obviously, these guys like to hit. That energy was good,” said Bucs’ current coach Koetter. “What I didn’t like was that first team period was ugly, ugly, ugly from a penalty standpoint. We can’t play that way. We’re not going to play that way. And they’ll hear about it.”

Take, for instance, a shot by safety Major Wright. It was hard, but it was illegal.

“Yeah, that was a cheap shot. That was a cheap shot,” Koetter said. “He would have been ejected, he would have been fined and it was a 15-yard penalty. We don’t need those kinds of hits. Those kinds of hits don’t do us any good because they won’t be good on Sunday. Now, there are some other hits out here, some banging, that are legal. I always talk to these guys: ‘We’ve got to take care of each other on the field. There’s hitting in live contact and there’s hitting against our teammates.’ Sometimes the rookies have a hard time learning that. Like everything out here, it’s a work in progress.”

Koetter said the Bucs will continue to work to reduce penalties.

“We’re working on the penalties,” Koetter said. “I’ve got to do a great job on that. I’ve got to keep pushing the envelope. I know our coaches are doing it. But we’ve got to do better than we did today, at least to start.”

Still, the Bucs are working on improving their defesne.

“Oh, yeah,” Koetter said. “The looks that they’re giving us, and they were real aggressive with their blitzes today, a lot of nickel off the slot. It’s great work for our quarterbacks to have to get the ball out of their hands. If we were playing real football, those quarterbacks would have been taking some hits today, which is not good, not good for our quarterbacks but good for the other ones.”

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