The NFL is sending the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to New Orleans in Week One of the 2020 season, surely looking to showcase the new NFC South showdown of Tom Brady and Drew Brees, the two all-time leaders in passing yards and touchdown passes. But it's not Brees that Brady is going to have to worry about on September 13; it's Marshon Lattimore and Janoris Jenkins and the recently-returned Malcolm Jenkins. Meanwhile, rookie Tristan Wirfs and the Buccaneers' O-Line will be tasked with keeping Pro Bowl pass-rusher Cameron Jordan out of Brady's personal space.
On Wednesday, Team Reporter Casey Phillips, Staff Writer Carmen Vitali and I highlighted some of the biggest challenges facing Tampa Bay's defense this year, such as Kansas City's track-meet offense and the seemingly unstoppable Brees-to-Michael Thomas pipeline. Well, as loaded as the Buccaneers' offense is with Brady, Rob Gronkowski, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin and more it also has some tricky tests ahead this fall. An underrated Saints defense that ranked 11th in the NFL last year is only one of them.
The biggest challenges for Tampa Bay's offense is our topic today as Casey, Carmen and I continue to give the Roundtable treatment to five issues regarding the 2020 schedule, which was released last week. Here's the full schedule of topics for the week:
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 return to Carmen in the pole position, followed by Casey and then me.
Carmen Vitali: Facing Cam Jordan and the Saints' defense twice.
There's been a big to-do made about the Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees matchup this year and to be clear – that's going to be epic to see twice this season. But there's an underlying storyline that hasn't been talked about much that could dictate how effective Brady will be: the Saints' defense (and how good they've become in recent years).
Though defensive captain Cam Jordan came out and said he 'wasn't thrilled' with the idea of having to play Brady twice a year given how quickly he gets rid of the ball, he and the Saints fared pretty well in that department last year against other opposing quarterbacks. Jordan had a career-high 15.5 sacks last season. The Saints as a whole registered 51.0, the third-most in the league. And while the Bucs held the title for best rushing defense in the NFL in 2019, New Orleans wasn't far behind. The Saints held opponents to 91.3 yards on the ground, which was the fourth-fewest. They're a multi-faceted team that makes it hard on opponents no matter which way they decide to go.
Now, Jordan has only played Brady twice and gotten just one sack on him in those two contests. Brady is 4-1 in five games against the Saints but hasn't played them since 2017. Plus – and I know this is hard to believe – there's more to the offense than just Brady. Tampa Bay struggled last season to get anything established on the ground. Plus, the Saints recorded a total of 8.0 sacks on quarterback Jameis Winston, 6.0 at their place alone. But if Brady can get rid of the ball and the line equipped now with first-round pick Tristan Wirfs can help establish the run with a combination of running backs Ronald Jones, Dare Ogunbowale and newcomer Ke'Shawn Vaughn, I like the Bucs' chances.
Casey Phillips: Chicago Bears
Khalil Mack is enough to make me pick this game even if he was the only guy out there on defense. In his two years with the Bears he has 11 forced fumbles, 21 sacks, and 18 tackles for loss. Even though he and the Bears defense as a whole dropped off in production slightly last year from 2018, they still finished last season ranked third in points allowed, sixth in yards allowed, and fifth against the run.
Going into 2020, they have retained many of the players who have made their defense successful recently, plus added pass rusher Robert Quinn in free agency. Last year for the Cowboys in 14 games, Quinn had 11.5 sacks, 22 QB hits, and 13 tackles for loss. Add him to the likes of Khalil Mack, Akiem Hicks coming back from injury, Roquan Smith, and Eddie Jackson and that's a potent combination. With pass rushers like Mack and Quinn, this will be a good test for the rookie Tristan Wirfs and the offensive line as a whole in protecting Tom Brady.
Plus, now this Bears defense is led by Chuck Pagano. He has plenty of familiarity with what Bruce Arians likes to do on offense going back to their days together in Indianapolis when Arians took over as head coach while Pagano battled cancer. Even though these men share a very close friendship, you know their units on the field won't be pulling any punches.
View pictures of all the Buccaneers' 2020 opponents.
Scott Smith: The Chargers' Secondary
Carmen mentioned "Tom Brady vs. Drew Brees" above, a five-word sequence that I believe I have now both read and written myself about three dozen times. And that's understandable. The NFL's spotlight is sure to shine on a number of matchups between Brady, the Bucs' new quarterback, and the likes of Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Patrick Mahomes.
But what makes the addition of Brady particularly exciting for the Buccaneers – you know, other than him being the G.O.A.T and all – is the thought of him delivering precise passes to an elite group of pass-catchers. Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard, Cam Brate and now possibly Tyler Johnson, too – that's a lot for opposing defenses to handle.
You know who might just be up for the challenge, though? The Chargers, who can match the Bucs' pass-catching corps with an elite secondary of their own. Los Angeles already had a star-studded secondary with the likes of cornerbacks Casey Hayward and Desmond King and safety Derwin James, but they added former Bronco Chris Harris this offseason to push it over the top. Harris has four Pro Bowls on his resume, one as recently as 2018. Hayward has been to two all-star games. King was a first-team all-pro in 2018. James was both a Pro Bowler and a first-team all-pro as a rookie in 2018 before he missed 11 games due to a stress fracture last year.
Harris is likely to concentrate on playing the slot, but the Chargers have tons of versatility and depth all around him. James can line up pretty much anywhere, King can play inside and outside and perhaps even safety in some sub packages and starting safety Rayshawn Jenkins has some position flexibility as well. The Chargers are probably going to find a way to get 2019 second-round pick Nasir Adderley involved in some way, too. This is a team that has been notorious in recent years for having to deal with multiple injuries to key players, and that certainly played a part in their 5-11 season last year, but this secondary is built to withstand some temporary losses and still excel.
Despite a surprisingly anemic pass-rush last year (L.A. was 23rd in sacks per pass play and 29th in total sacks), the Chargers ranked fifth in pass defense a year ago, allowing just 200.3 yards per game. That's the highest-ranked pass defense from 2019 that the Bucs are scheduled to encounter in 2020. And when you take that defense and add Harris plus, the Chargers hope, a full 16 games from James, it's almost certain to be even better this year. It's a worthy challenge for the Bucs' pass-catching corps and one of the better unit-vs.-unit matchups you'll see anywhere in the NFL this season.