"I like that sooner game because it means we did something good."
That's what quarterback Tom Brady said following the Buccaneers' preseason finale. He's of course referring to the fact that because Tampa Bay won Super Bowl LV that they earned the right to kick off the entire NFL season this Thursday, September 9, at home. All eyes are on you. It's the only NFL game on television and it comes with a spectacle, especially as the NFL welcomes fans back in a full capacity for 2021.
It will, incredibly, be Brady's seventh time getting the honor of kicking off the season. He's 5-1 in such games in his career.
So while all eyes on the Buccaneers Thursday night, I've compiled a list of individual players you should be keeping an eye on as the Bucs begin their title defense.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 1 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
1. QB Tom Brady
Unsurprisingly, we start out with an absolute no brainer here. We've heard all training camp about how the Bucs' offense is looking to pick up where it left off and that starts with this man right here. He has talked extensively about how he has a better understanding and comfortability within this offensive system now that he has had a full year in it. The offensive seemingly clicked after the team's Week 13 bye last year and they haven't lost a game since. In fact, they haven't scored under 26 points since and are on a seven-game streak of over 30 points per game.
In the Bucs' preseason finale against the Texans in Houston, the starters got their most work of 2021 so far, playing three series. The opening drive sputtered but after that, Brady led back-to-back 90+ yard drives that ended in the end zone before Head Coach Bruce Arians saw all he needed to see and pulled Brady.
Heading into Thursday's season opener, Brady will be facing off against a team he has never lost to in the Dallas Cowboys. The 22-year veteran is a perfect 5-0 when facing 'America's Team,' averaging 270.8 yards per game with 10 touchdowns and a collective 95.6 passer rating in that span.
This time around, Brady will also have the only receiving corps that rivals Dallas' own when a fully healthy Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown and Mike Evans take the field as just three weapons in an entire offensive arsenal that is now seemingly in sync with one another, so expect some production against a Dallas defense that still has a lot to prove.
That also brings to my next Buccaneer…
2. WR Mike Evans
Honestly, I threw a metaphorical dart at the wall to pick which receiver of Brady's that I wanted to highlight. It landed on Evans, who has had his own heroics against the Cowboys in his career. In three regular season games against Dallas, Evans has 18 receptions, averaging 15.3 yards per every one of those. His per game total averages 91.7 and the last time the two teams met, Evans had six catches for 91 yards and a touchdown.
I'll take that again, please.
Evans also said on Sunday that this is the best he's ever felt heading into a season. He's been working diligently on working out 'faster and smarter' along with eating right this offseason. Evans didn't take a single day off in training camp and echoes the same sentiment as his quarterback in saying things could be even better this year.
"We're miles ahead of what we were last year," said Evans. "Not just me and [Brady's] connection, but the whole team – the whole offense. It's really exciting and hopefully we can do something really special this year."
And this year starts with this game.
3. DT Ndamukong Suh
News broke Sunday that Cowboys starting right guard, and arguably one of the league's best at the position, Zack Martin will miss Thursday's opener after being placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list. That now means the long-awaited return of quarterback Dak Prescott will come behind an offensive line very much in flux against the league's best run defense and the team that recorded the fourth-most sacks in the NFL last season.
The guy most often occupying the territory over the right guard has been long-time vet Ndamukong Suh and that's not ideal for a guy like Connor McGovern, who is listed as next on the Cowboys' depth chart at the right guard position and is entering just his second season in the NFL. McGovern could get all he can handle in Suh as he tries to stand between him and Prescott. It also throws a wrench into the 'Boys running game. Not that it was ever advisable in the first place, but maybe don't try to run it up the middle if you're running back Ezekiel Elliott. Because if it's not Suh you run into, it's going to be Vita Vea, which is another dead end if you don't have a couple of blockers in front of you, realistically. How well the line holds up to the interior of the Bucs' defensive front might be the thing to watch this game.
4. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
And if it isn't Suh or Vea that takes advantage of a backup occupying the space that Martin was supposed to be, it may just be this guy. If there's anyone that can figure out how to exploit this matchup it's going to be Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles and he may just do it with Pierre-Paul, given all the history that exists between JPP and this Dallas franchise. You want to talk about familiarity – Pierre-Paul spent eight seasons in the NFC East while a member of the New York Giants so he knows this Cowboys team. And likely hates them. That's how rivalries work, right?
In 14 career games against his former division opponents, Pierre-Paul has 7.0 sacks, 15 quarterback hits and 11 tackles for loss. He also has an interception. So yeah, Pierre-Paul plays like he dislikes them, which makes him an excellent watch Thursday night.
5. The Bucs Secondary
I said earlier that the Bucs have one of the only receiving corps that could rival the Cowboys – because I'm not going to take it away from Dallas – they're also stacked at receiver. Between Michael Gallup, Amari Cooper and now second-year player CeeDee Lamb, they'll be a challenge to contain… if Prescott can end up getting the ball out. The trio combined for 2,892 yards and 15 touchdowns last season, with Cooper topping 1,100 yards on the year.
Pressuring Prescott will largely be the job of the front seven but should some of those passes get off, namely those quick screens and short to intermediate routes, it will be up to the Bucs' secondary to contain it.
Luckily, this Bucs unit has had a ton of practice going up against high-quality receivers.
"I've been saying it really since my rookie year that they've been getting me right every offseason and every [training] camp," said cornerback Carlton Davis. "To be able to go against Mike [Evans], Chris [Godwin], then we added A.B. (Antonio Brown) – and all of the other receivers – we've just got so much diversity with our receivers as far as quick, big, possession, strong. Just going up against those guys was just great for me because they allowed me to work on my technique and just get some game-like plays and reps in during this time where your developing and you're trying to get back in the groove of the season. Those guys take no plays off. They're always the same. They're always trying to compete. To be able to compete with them just really prepares me, and not just this year. Every year I've been here, I've been prepared by them to go up against these other receivers. It allows me to play fearless because like I've seen it all just in practice alone with all of these guys we've got. I could name a bunch of them because our offense – we have so many weapons. I love it because it's more competition for me and I can get better."