''You would like all of your players the first time they're going to be on the field to be perfect and get off to a good start and have it go that way throughout, but that's not the case,'' coach Lovie Smith said Sunday, reflecting on the 2013 Heisman Trophy winner's performance in a 26-16 loss to the Minnesota Vikings.
Winston shrugged off a slow start to lead a pair of scoring drives, impressing Smith with the way he held his composure after being sacked twice, fumbling a snap and throwing an interception that set up a Minnesota touchdown on Saturday night.
The first overall pick in the draft also missed a couple of open receivers. He had a snap sail over his head deep and left himself open to a potentially big hit by failing to slide properly at the end of a run before showing why the Bucs, who haven't made the playoffs since 2007, are so excited about his future.
The young quarterback developed a reputation in college for being at his best with games on the line. The nine-play, 76-yard TD drive he led in the closing minutes of the first half demonstrated what he's capable of doing in the two-minute offense.
Winston completed five of six passes for 64 yards, then finished the drive with an 8-yard TD run.
Smith conceded there was not a lot to like about Tampa Bay's first few offense series. He raved about how Winston rebounded to finish strong.
''He made the right checks and things like that, looked comfortable in the pocket, especially at the end,'' the coach said.
''What we saw from him is he faced a little adversity early on and hung in there. I looked in his eyes on the sideline, he was anxious to continue to get reps,'' Smith added. ''And as much as anything, the script we had drawn up for him was to finish strong. We feel like he did that.''
The rookie's longest completion, a 40-yarder to Vincent Jackson on third-and-14, led to a first-quarter field goal. He finished 9 of 19 for 131 yards and one interception.
''We wanted to see where we were as a football team, set the bar. We did that,'' Smith said. ''Of course, it's lower than we'd like for it to be right now. But when you watch the video, you normally see more things that you like than you initially thought.''
Winston's debut clearly showed he has plenty to work on, including how to protect himself when he runs the ball. The rookie had four carries for 18 yards against the Vikings.
''We haven't worked a lot on him sliding, but we will,'' Smith said.
Meanwhile, a bigger concern may be protecting the young quarterback in the pocket. Right tackle Demar Dotson left Saturday night's game with a left knee sprain, and the Bucs don't have a lot of depth on the offensive line.
Dotson is a seventh-year pro who's started 47 of 48 games over the past three seasons. Patrick Omameh is listed as the backup at right tackle, however the team may consider moving second-year pro Kevin Pamphile - currently listed on the depth chart as the co-starter at left tackle, along with rookie Donovan Smith - to the right side if Dotson is out for an extended period.
Dotson was injured late in the second quarter. He ordinarily would not have been in the game at that stage of a preseason opener, but with Winston slated to play the entire first half, the Bucs wanted to provide adequate protection for the young quarterback.
''He won't play this week,'' Lovie Smith said, referring to next Monday's preseason game against Cincinnati. ''We don't know exactly how long he'll be out.''
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