The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense came on strong in the second half of the 2019 season, prompting team architects to take an aggressive approach in free agency to keep as much of that unit intact as possible. NFL sack leader Shaquil Barrett got the franchise tag and fellow front-seven stars Jason Pierre-Paul and Ndamukong Suh were re-signed. The Buccaneers also used their second round pick in last month's draft on versatile play-making safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., potentially making the defense even better in 2020.
If the Buccaneers' defense does indeed continue on an upward trajectory this season, they will have to do it against some of the biggest offensive stars and most dangerous offenses in the NFL. There are five 4,000-yard passers on Tampa Bay's schedule and 13 1,000-yard pass-catchers. Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Todd Gurley, Aaron Jones, Josh Jacobs, Alvin Cook and Saquon Barkley all loom on the 2020 slate to test the Buccaneers' number-one ranked defense. What's the toughest challenge out there for Tampa Bay's defense this fall, whether it be a single player, a position group or a particular offensive scheme? That's our discussion for today.
This week, Team Reporter Casey Phillips, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I are hashing out five different topics regarding the schedule. Here's the Roundtable schedule for the week:
Monday, May 11: What is your most anticipated game on the Bucs' 2020 schedule?
Tuesday, May 12: Who is the top rookie opponent on the Bucs' schedule?
Wednesday, May 13: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's defense?
Thursday, May 14: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's offense?
Friday, May 15: What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?
As we continue to rotate the order of our selections and enforce a no-duplication rule, we have Casey leading off this week. Take it away, Casey…
Casey Phillips: Kansas City Chiefs
Boy I really went out on a limb for this one didn't I? No risk it no biscuit right? But seriously I had to go with the defending champs. They are getting the band back together by returning 20 of their 22 starters from the Super Bowl squad including of course a guy by the name of Patrick Mahomes. You may have heard of him.
In 2019 they were sixth in the league in yards per game, fifth in passing yards per game, but in the bottom 10 teams in rushing yards per game. Then they used their first-round pick in the 2020 Draft on LSU running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has conjured comparisons to a young Darren Sproles and even Alvin Kamara with his running/receiving hybrid abilities. So now not only do they have threats like Travis Kelce, Tyreek Hill, and Sammy Watkins, they also have a more potent and dangerous backfield.
The timing of this matchup could be critical as well. It's the final game before a very late bye week, which also puts it as the last game before the ever-important month of December. This is the time when teams need to establish themselves in the playoff discussion.
Scott Smith: Drew Brees to Michael Thomas
Yeah, Casey wasn't going to pass on K.C. any more than Cincinnati was going to pass on Joe Burrow, and not just because of the alliteration. This is the one Roundtable in which being first carried the most weight.
As for me, I'll start right at the beginning. Tampa Bay's 2020 season begins in New Orleans, because apparently the schedule-makers didn't want to wait even one week to pair up the two leading passers in NFL history now that they're division foes. Like the Chiefs, the Saints are loaded with weapons for their star quarterback, and they also have a very good offensive line, as usual. New Orleans actually scored more points last year than Kansas City (as did the Buccaneers, actually), and they did it with a more balanced attack.
That said, no non-QB skill-position player was more critical to his offense last year than Thomas, with the possible exceptions of Christian McCaffrey and late-season Derrick Henry. Thomas was the NFL's leading receiver by a large margin and the only wideout in the NFL's top 12 in yards from scrimmage (he was fifth). Tampa Bay's defense, which returns almost completely intact, led the NFL in rush defense and set a franchise record in that category, and it already proved it could stop McCaffrey, holding him to 53 and 57 yards from scrimmage in two games. McCaffrey was only held below 100 yards from scrimmage in two other games, and never under 90. The Bucs were one of the last teams to keep Henry relatively in check, too, and don't have to play the Titans this year.
Thomas? He had 19 catches for 296 yards and three touchdowns in two games against the Bucs last year. Every defense knows the ball is going to Thomas but nobody can stop it from happening. And now the Saints have added Emmanuel Sanders, the best number-two receiver Thomas will play with yet, which is only going to make it more difficult to focus on Thomas. The Buccaneers have a young secondary on the rise but it will be sorely tested in Week One…and then again in Week Nine. That's right, the Bucs play the Saints twice but only have to face Mahomes and company once. That makes Thomas twice the threat to Tampa Bay's defense in 2020. That's just science.
View pictures of all the Buccaneers' 2020 opponents.
Carmen Vitali: Aaron Rodgers being Aaron Rodgers
I can't believe as someone who grew up in Chicago that I'm the one calling this out but here we are. The duel between him and Bucs quarterback Tom Brady is always must-see TV and it's only happened three times. Brady owns a 2-1 edge and if you don't think Rodgers will be looking to even the score, you don't know either of these two quarterbacks at all.
But it's not just that head-to-head competition. Rodgers suffered a chip to his shoulder this offseason when the Green Bay Packers decided to take gunslinging quarterback Jordan Love out of Utah State with their first pick of the 2020 NFL Draft. In other words, Rodgers got Rodgers'd and I have a feeling he's about to light it up this season as a result. He's not going down without a fight and still wants to prove he's Green Bay's best option. And he is.
A-aron has rarely had a particularly stellar cast around him, but the thing about him as a quarterback is that he always makes things happen anyway. His best season probably came in 2011 when he had Donald Driver, Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson around him, sure, but Rodgers has been consistently successful since then without guys like that. He even took his team to the NFC Championship last year with Davante Adams, Marquez Valdes-Scantling and a 33-year-old Jimmy Graham. Those three combined for just 10 total touchdowns last season. Rodgers was saved by running back Aaron Jones, who put up 16 rushing touchdowns and therefore the bulk of Green Bay's offense. Luckily, the Bucs' defense is pretty good against the run. They'll be expected to repeat their top ranking again this year after returning the entire starting front seven.
So, while I may think the Bucs' defense is up for the challenge that Jones presents, an angry Aaron Rodgers is not something I'd wish upon anyone (well, ok, maybe the Saints and/or any NFC South opponent). I definitely am not thrilled about the Bucs defense having to contend with him when the Packers come to town in Week Six.