1. OLB Shaq Barrett
It's true that Bucs outside linebacker Shaq Barrett, who tied a league-record with 9.0 sacks in the first four games, has been held without one in the last two games. It's undoubtedly due to teams' efforts against him and he's faced his share of double teams in that span, as a result. However, following a bye week of probable adjustments, there will most likely be an emphasis on getting Barrett free of multiple blockers and up against more favorable matchups. It's kind of dealer's choice when it comes to the front seven as to who each member of the opposing offensive line is going to block. You focus on Barrett and that means interior guys like Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh are one-on-one. Same with Carl Nassib. All three of those guys got to the quarterback last game as the Panthers were preoccupied with Barrett. Plus, you have to worry about blitzing inside linebackers in Bowles' system, too.
This week, the Bucs' defense is going up against an offense that's letting up the most sacks in the league. Tennessee quarterbacks have been sacked 31.0 times so far this season, which should be music to the Tampa Bay front seven. I think more of the focus will be on the interior and blocking Vea and Suh from getting through, again opening up opportunities on the outside.
Which brings to the following… you didn't think I forgot about outside linebacker Jason Pierre-Paul's potential impact in his return, did you?
2. OLB Jason Pierre-Paul
The second-year pass rusher was added to the 53-man roster on Saturday, making him eligible to play in Tennessee. Despite it being his first game back from a neck injury, he's going to command attention on whichever side he lines up on. That's another reason to watch Barrett, who will likely be tapped to serve opposite JPP.
Here's the thing, Pierre-Paul is just a rare athlete, plain and simple. As such, rarely can you account for him with just one guy. Especially one guy from a unit that's collectively giving up the most sacks in the league right now. Would you want to be the one deciding who to block between, JPP, Suh, Vea or Barrett? Heck, throw Nassib in there just for fun and the answer is no. The run defense has been solid, but those names right there are the makings of a nightmare pass rush. The Bucs could use help in that department, currently giving up the most passing yards in the league. The quarterback can't throw the ball if he's got no time to throw it. Logic.
With all that said, this is still Pierre-Paul's first game back from a serious injury. It would be foolish to think he can be the game-wrecker he was last year right off the bat. The point of listing Barrett first though, is that Pierre-Paul doesn't have to be. Just him lining up on the field makes things more complicated for opposing offensive lines and for now, that could be enough. So, don't worry if you don't see the sacks right away, rest assured, his presence will be felt.
3. CB Vernon Hargreaves
Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves is the vet in the room at 24 years old, believe it or not. In his fourth season with the team, Hargreaves is settling into the Bucs' new defensive system where he's called on to be a more physical press corner. It's something he did in college at University of Florida and is a style of play he's said he's most comfortable in numerous times before. Like the rest of the secondary, he's still getting adjusted to the new scheme but has made some incredible plays already this season. Week Two against the Carolina Panthers comes to mind when he forced running back Christian McCaffrey out of bounds at the goal line.
After the bye week, all players are rested and ready to go. It serves as a little bit of a reset and a time to make some adjustments. I think Hargreaves is one that benefits from those adjustments and helps in improving the Bucs defense against the pass. That starts this week against the Titans and a familiar receiver in former Buccaneer Adam Humphries, too.
4. WR Mike Evans
We've talked a lot about wide receiver Chris Godwin lately – and for good reason. Godwin is first in the league for touchdown receptions with six and because of the bye week, slipped to second in receiving yards behind the Saints' Michael Thomas. But Godwin isn't having this season if it isn't for Mike Evans. Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich said as much this week when speaking on Godwin's success.
That being said, I think the pendulum swings back Evans' way against the Titans in the form of production. Tennessee is giving up the fourth-most points in the league and I think Evans ends up responsible for some of the points the Bucs and the league's fourth-ranked scoring offense put up.
5. The tandem of RBs Ronald Jones & Peyton Barber
Speaking of someone else I think will get into the end zone, the Bucs have employed a sort-of running back by committee approach to the ground game. Each of the three between Barber, Jones and Dare Ogunbowale have their specialties. Barber's, for instance, happens to be tough yards. He can muscle his way through the middle while also busting up the outside. It means he's dangerous and makes him a red-zone threat. In fact, all but one of the Bucs' six rushing touchdowns this season came from five yards out or less. If Barber is the one who gets those tough yards, he'll likely be the one getting in the end zone in those situations. Though, it's worth noting Barber ran in a 16-yard touchdown in Week Two against the Panthers. As it stands now, Barber has three of the six rushing touchdowns this season by the Bucs. Jones has two and Ogunbowale has one.
Jones leads the team in rushing first downs with 13 (one ahead of Barber), his ability to extend drives with his legs a tremendous asset to the team, currently. Jones is more explosive though and can move you down the field. He also has the most receiving yards among the Bucs' running backs with 92 on the season. Between the two of them, the Bucs will look to capitalize on a Titans' defense that's allowing more than 90 yards on the ground per game.