1. WR Mike Evans
Wide receiver Mike Evans already has 957 yards through 10 games, making him just 43 yards shy of his fifth consecutive 1,000-yard season. That would extend the Buccaneers’ franchise record of consecutive 1,000-yard seasons and would make him just the third player in NFL history to achieve the feat, alongside Randy Moss and Cincinnati’s A.J. Green. Evans has been averaging 95.7 yards per game in 2018, so he should have no problem getting just half that for the mark. He could also extend his own record for most yards through the first 11 games of a season should he get 64 yards or more. Of course, he’ll have to go through 49ers’ cornerback Richard Sherman to do it. It will be the second matchup between the two big men at Raymond James Stadium. Sherman came to town with the Seattle Seahawks in 2016. Evans had 104 yards and not one, but two touchdowns that game, getting the better of Sherman in that contest. Hopefully, he’ll have a repeat performance as Sherman comes to town with his new team on Sunday.
2. DE Jason Pierre-Paul
Defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has been the picture of consistency for the Bucs’ defense. So much so, that through 10 games he has 9.5 sacks. It puts him on pace for nearly 16.0 on the year, but more importantly, he is just a half sack away from becoming Tampa Bay’s first double-digit sack player since Simeon Rice in 2005, when Rice had 14.0. Pierre-Paul had 1.5 sacks against his former team last Sunday, having told the media in advance that he was coming for his old quarterback, Eli Manning. He made good on that promise starting in the second quarter, when he and fellow defensive end Carl Nassib split the sack of Manning on the Giants’ first play of the series. Then, Pierre-Paul got to Manning all on his own in the third quarter on second-down and nine, dropping the Giants’ signal caller for nine yards, which ultimately forced New York to settle for a field goal on the drive.
3. LB Adarius Taylor
In addition to wearing the green dot now that linebacker Lavonte David is out for the second-straight week, linebacker Adarius Taylor will need to account for 49ers running back Matt Breida and the 49ers third-ranked rushing attack. Coach Koetter said that Taylor did fine with the green-dot responsibilities against the Giants and it’s his signature versatility that helps him in that regard. At one point or another, Taylor has been the Bucs’ starting strong side linebacker (his primary position), but has also been the team’s starting middle linebacker (like now) and the starting weak-side linebacker. He plays all three positions and plays them pretty darn well, according to Coach. It’s that experience that helps him understand what the defense is doing at all times, making him an effective defensive signal caller on the field.
He and the rest of the linebacking corps will have their hands full with Breida, who has been having an extremely successful sophomore season for San Francisco. He has 632 yards on the ground for the year, with another 124 yards receiving.
4. Run-stopping unit
It won’t just be on the linebackers to help stop Breida and the rest of the rushing attack. Coach Koetter said this week that Breida is a very good ‘one-cut’ runner and once he gets loose, he takes off. The guys that can make sure he isn’t able to make that cut? The defensive line. Run-stuffers like defensive tackle Beau Allen, defensive tackle Vita Vea and even defensive end Vinny Curry will be crucial to containing the young back. If they can stop him up front, he won’t even have a chance to even get to the linebackers. They’ll have to be very gap-sound, as Coach Duffner has said this week, to make sure Breida doesn’t have any holes to run through.
5. CB Brent Grimes
The 49ers have one less takeaway on defense than the Bucs do this year, which unfortunately is saying something. They have a -15 turnover margin and with a young quarterback at the helm, they’ve shown to be a little turnover prone. Could this be the game the Bucs’ defense ends up with a takeaway (or two, or three?). There is definitely an opportunity there for that to be the case and cornerback Brent Grimes could be the one to do it. Grimes has yet to record an interception this season, despite his acrobatic style of play. Grimes has had at least three interceptions in both his prior seasons in Tampa Bay, so in short, he’s due. Just as the rest of the defense is. The Bucs will be without starting free safety Justin Evans, but Isaiah Johnson has taken over Evans’ place. He’s paired with strong safety Jordan Whitehead, who provided can clear concussion protocol for this Sunday’s game is also looking for his first NFL interception. The thing about takeaways is they seem to come in bunches, but look for Brent Grimes to be the one to get the ball rolling.