Ryan Fitzpatrick will give Bucs shorter throws, longer drives

Ryan Fitzpatrick averaged 6.77 yards per attempt last season, 24th in the league. Chuck Cook/USA Today Sports

TAMPA, Fla. -- The Tampa Bay Buccaneers plan to start backup quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick on Thursday in their preseason opener against the Miami Dolphins (7 p.m. ET). Fitzpatrick will assume the starting role for the first three games of the season while Jameis Winston serves his three-game suspension.

The plan is for Fitzpatrick to play about a quarter to give him some reps, hopefully without exposing the 35-year-old to any unnecessary hits, which could be tricky, given the health of the Bucs' offensive line.

Starting right tackle Demar Dotson isn't expected to play, as he's recovering from offseason knee surgery, and the training staff has been cautious in bringing him back. Caleb Benenoch, who has been lining up as the starting right guard, missed multiple practices recently but was able to return Tuesday. Tackles Cole Gardner and Leonard Wester did not take part in Tuesday's practice.

Winston is also expected to play a quarter. The bulk of Thursday night's work is expected to go to Ryan Griffin, who will be Fitzpatrick's backup for those first three games and has yet to throw a regular-season pass.

Here's what you can expect with Fitzpatrick at the helm:

Shorter passes

Fitzpatrick generally relies on shorter passes than Winston. Some of that is predicated on what looks the defense is showing, but last season, Winston averaged 7.93 yards per attempt -- sixth-most of any quarterback in the league (minimum 100 passes) -- while Fitzpatrick averaged 6.77 yards per attempt, 24th in the league.

Fitzpatrick can be largely credited with the Bucs' utilizing a screen game and more checkdowns last season, going for the higher-percentage throws. There have been times in camp when, amid pressure, Fitzpatrick has had to quickly unload the ball to running back Peyton Barber.

"Fitz keeps the drives alive," Barber said. "I'm not saying that Jameis doesn't because Jameis does the same thing, but [Fitz] is very good at keeping drives alive."

This is especially true near the end zone. Six of Fitzpatrick's seven touchdown passes last season were on throws of 10 yards or shorter, according to ESPN Stats & Information. Winston averaged 20.47 yards on his touchdown passes last season. Fitzpatrick averaged 10.71 yards.

That isn't to say that Fitzpatrick can't air it out. He has connected with DeSean Jackson on a few really nice, deep balls in training camp. He just might not do it as frequently. Winston averaged about six pass attempts of 18-plus air yards per game last season, and Fitzpatrick averaged a little more than four.

In terms of the really big plays, though, Winston attempted nine passes of 40 or more air yards in 13 games last season. Fitzpatrick had just one.

Where he's at his best

Like Winston, Fitzpatrick excels off play-action. On passes with play-action last season, he completed 63 percent of his throws versus 58 percent on plays that didn't include it, according to ESPN Stats & Info. His quarterback rating on play-action throws was 78.2 compared to 49.8 without.

Winston is known for his improvisational skills, but Fitzpatrick can make plays outside the pocket. In the red zone Tuesday, Fitzpatrick dropped back, and as the pocket quickly collapsed, he darted diagonally to his right for a touchdown.

"He's got over 2,000 rushing yards in his career. We kid the other quarterbacks about how far behind they are," Koetter said. "I think part of being a good runner is knowing when to pull it down and go straight ahead and not waste time going sideways. Fitz does a good job of that."

Fitzpatrick added: "It's definitely instinctive. It's something I've always been able to do a little bit and have some success with. I think at times it will keep defenses honest with what they do. It's not what I'm trying to do. I do it when necessary."

He's also good against the blitz. According to ESPN Stats & Info, Fitzpatrick's 80.2 total quarterback rating against the blitz the past three seasons is better than that of Matt Ryan (79.7) and Tom Brady (78.5). During that span, Fitzpatrick has also thrown 22 touchdowns and eight interceptions against the blitz and completed 57 percent of his passes, slightly better than Winston's 55.9 percent in the same span.

The mental edge

In 14 seasons, Fitzpatrick has seen a lot of defensive coverages, and he's very observant, something teammates such as tight end O.J. Howard feel is invaluable.

"He'll say, 'This guy's playing flat-footed' or 'This guy is playing with this technique.' He picks up on so [many] little things in such a quick [amount of] time, even during a game, so it's good to have that from a quarterback," said Howard, who remembers Fitzpatrick helping them last season against the Dolphins.

"That week of film preparation, he was telling us different things in the film room, like, 'Expect this coverage on second-and-long' and 'Expect this linebacker to play open to the field on this coverage,' so when a guy can tell you that, and it actually happens repeatedly over and over again, it's just amazing to see that from him."