Last fall, as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers headed into what would prove to be an unforgettable 2020 season, they faced a schedule loaded with some of the best quarterbacks the NFL has ever seen. That included Drew Brees (twice), Aaron Rodgers and 25-year-old wunderkind Patrick Mahomes. Thanks to Brees's retirement and rotating divisional matchups, none of those passers are on Tampa Bay's schedule in 2021.
To be sure, there are some battles against star quarterbacks looming, including Matthew Stafford in a new uniform, Josh Allen and, as always, Matt Ryan. But there is also the possibility that the Buccaneers will face 10 quarterbacks in 2021 whom they've never before had to defend. There are a lot of unknowns ahead.
What we do know is that Tampa Bay has one of the NFL's best defenses, coming off a Super Bowl performance that has them thinking about taking the top spot in the league rankings. We also know that defense will be tested, week-in and week-out, by a league absolutely loaded with offensive stars and high-powered attacks. What Staff Writer Carmen Vitali, Team Reporter Casey Phillips and I are going to debate today is the biggest challenge that lies ahead for Tampa Bay's defense in 2020.
That's the current topic as the three of us continue our Roundtable Week regarding the Buccaneers' recently-released 2021 schedule. Here's the full schedule for the week:
Monday, May 17: What is your most anticipated game on the Bucs' 2021 schedule?
Tuesday, May 18: Who is the top rookie opponent on the Bucs' schedule?
Wednesday, May 19: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's defense?
Thursday, May 20: What is the most significant challenge for Tampa Bay's offense?
Friday, May 21: What is the toughest stretch of games on this year's schedule?
Again, we're following a rule of no duplicating of picks, so order will matter in these Roundtables and we'll rotate that order from day to day. This is my shot to go first, with Casey on deck and Carmen picking third.
So what challenge is most going to stress the Buccaneers' defense in 2021. It could be the most dangerous quarterback or a hard-to-contain receiver or a specific scheme or a combination of those things and others. Let's get to it.
Scott Smith: The Rams' Misdirection Offense
The Buccaneers' defense dominated in the Super Bowl in part because it had a dry run against Patrick Mahomes and Kansas City's offense in Week 12 of the regular season. The Chiefs, and in particular Tyreek Hill, put up huge first-half numbers in an eventual 27-24 win, with the Buccaneers' defense eventually adjusting but a rally falling short. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles revised his game plan for the rematch in Super Bowl LV and it proved to be a masterpiece.
That's what the Buccaneers need to do in Week Three when they head to Los Angeles. No, I don't think the Rams have the best offense that the Buccaneers are going to face in 2021; that's probably the Bills, Cowboys or Falcons. What the Rams do have is a scheme that the Bucs found difficult to stop in Week 11 last year in what felt like a slow-death 27-24 loss. Robert Woods caught 12 passes for 130 yards and a touchdown, Cooper Kupp caught 11 passes for 145 yards and between them they secured 23 of the 28 passes thrown in their direction. Jared Goff threw 51 passes, and while the Bucs did pick him off twice they got almost no pressure on him as he rhythmically worked the short passing attack. Goff completed 24 of the 27 passes he threw between the line of scrimmage and 10 yards downfield for a total of 194 yards and two touchdowns. Since that game, the Rams have replaced Goff with Matthew Stafford, which seems like an upgrade and could make this Sean McVay attack even more dangerous.
McVay's Rams, of course, run primarily out of 11 personnel and since last season they have added DeSean Jackson and tiny burner Tutu Atwell to their list of pass-catchers. The Bucs will face some scarier individual receivers in 2021 – Calvin Ridley, Stefon Diggs and Michael Thomas, to name a few – but the Rams come at you with depth and playmakers all over the field. In addition to the aforementioned receivers they have tight end Tyler Higbee and running backs Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson, the latter two of whom benefit from the Rams' motion-heavy offense as much as anyone.
Yes, every team uses play-action but the Rams have weaponized it better than most. They often use "fly motion," with a receiver coming across the formation to cause a shift by the defense, sometimes just at the point of the snap, leading to misdirection throws against unbalanced defenses. It worked against the Buccaneers last year but I'm thinking Todd Bowles and the Bucs' defense will be ready to stop it this time around, just like they were in the Super Bowl against the Chiefs.
Casey Phillips: Buffalo Bills
The Bills finished second in the league in points scored and total yards in 2020. It was one of their best offensive years in nearly two decades and featured Josh Allen taking a big step forward as a passer.
The one knock on them was that their 20th-ranked rushing attack and second most pass-heavy offense made them a bit one-dimensional and forced them to rely on Josh Allen's arm too much. They came out in 3+ WR sets a whopping 91% of their snaps, the highest in the league. But they added running back Matt Breida in free agency, and Josh Allen proved that relying on his arm isn't a bad idea especially now that he has Stefon Diggs, Cole Beasley and the addition of Emmanuel Sanders this offseason. I also love that this game is in week 14 because both teams are predicted to be in the thick of the playoff hunt at that point, and playing it down in Florida that time of year won't allow Buffalo weather to diminish the possibility of a Bills high flying aerial attack.
Carmen Vitali: The Kyle Pitts Mismatch
Not to keep harping on this kid (especially because he has yet to take an NFL snap) but Scott and Casey took my first two thoughts and I think there's a lot of validity to my ensuing argument, anyway. Falcons' 2021 first-round pick Kyle Pitts is, by trade, a tight end. But in practicality? He can easily act as a true receiver. Consider this man is 6-foot-6, weighs 246 pounds and runs a blistering 4.44 40-yard dash, according to his Florida pro day. You know what that creates?
A mismatch of the worst kind.
Who do you put on a guy like that? What corner or safety can defend a guy that tall with an 83 3/8 wingspan, which ranks in the 98th percentile for tight ends? What linebacker can keep up with that aforementioned speed and agility? The Buccaneers are going to have to answer that question twice this season.
Plus, you've got Arthur Smith now calling the shots. Smith came from the Titans and while he won't have the rushing attack he had with Derrick Henry in Tennessee, he has a very similar set of weapons now in Atlanta. Last year, Tennessee ran the second-most offensive plays out of a 12 personnel set, fielding two tight ends 32.7% of the time. They did this while also having two very productive wideouts in A.J. Brown, who had 1,075 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdowns, along with Corey Davis who had 984 yards and five touchdowns. Tight end Jonnu Smith added eight receiving touchdowns while other tight ends split blocking duties with some success in the receiving game and all of a sudden you realize Smith is set up similarly now in Atlanta, too. He has Julio Jones, someone who has always given the Bucs a hard time no matter how the teams are doing on the season overall, Calvin Ridley who is good enough to be any team's number one receiver, Pitts and don't forget the team added tight end Hayden Hurst last season.
Pitts and a healthy Jones could give veteran Matt Ryan the boost he needs to have another very successful year. After all, Ryan led a top-five passing offense in 2020 even though the team itself had a less than ideal record. The pieces are there for another high-flying attack, which has been the area the Bucs' defense needs to improve the most this coming season. Tampa Bay had the top-ranked rushing defense in 2020, sixth-ranked overall defense, but the passing defense was ranked number 21. Now, that doesn't tell the whole story because they still ranked eighth in points allowed, so while they gave up yards – they didn't give up points, which is key.
To answer the Pitts question, the Buccaneers also have a couple of pretty fast linebackers that are great in coverage. See: Super Bowl LV and just please watch Lavonte David left on an island with Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce, another notorious mismatch, and still shut him down. David was relentless in his quest to do what pretty much no player had been able to last season and lo and behold Kelce was held without a touchdown. Then there's White, who sees Pitts' 4.44 speed and raises him 4.42 speed. You've also got a downhill thumper in Jordan Whitehead, a ball hawk in Antoine Winfield Jr. and pretty long corners in Carlton Davis, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Jamel Dean who will all be charged with containing this offense. On second thought, I think I've just talked myself out of this being as tall a task as I originally thought.