A look at the Bucs' complete schedule for the upcoming season.
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 2016 schedule, revealed last Thursday, is loaded with early highlights. In addition to Dirk Koetter's return to Atlanta for the season opener, the Buccaneers get a visit from the defending champion Broncos on October 2 and then make their return to Monday Night Football the following week against Carolina, the Super Bowl runners-up.
From a team standpoint, Tampa Bay's schedule is intriguing from beginning to end. There are six games against 2015 playoff teams, spread out from Weeks 2-17. There's a visit from a Los Angeles-based team, a first in over two decades. There's a three-home-games-in-three-weeks stretch at the dead center of the schedule that could propel the Bucs on a playoff run.
Dig a little deeper and this schedule is even more compelling. Can Donovan Smith and the Bucs' young line keep Von Miller away from Jameis Winston? What will Vincent Jackson do in his first trip back to San Diego, his first NFL home? Can Gerald McCoy get to Cam Newton the way Warren Sapp used to duel with Brett Favre?
Here are five huge individual matchups that could go a long way in determining how well the Buccaneers navigate their fascinating 2016 slate of games.
1. Brent Grimes vs. Julio Jones
My mailbag prediction of a season-opening game in Atlanta hit the mark, and that probably had a lot to do with the pending return of Dirk Koetter and Mike Smith to the Georgia Dome. There is another long-time Falcon who will be returning to his former field of glory, however: cornerback Brent Grimes.
Grimes played his first six NFL seasons in Atlanta and made his first Pro Bowl trip as a Falcon in 2010. He was particularly unkind to the Buccaneers on several occasions, but now he's wearing the pewter and red, having signed with Tampa Bay as an unrestricted free agent last month. Grimes followed his run in Atlanta with three more Pro Bowl campaigns in Miami, but the Dolphins did not play in Atlanta during that 2013-15 span.
Grimes was with the Falcons when they made a very bold trade in 2011, trading up 21 spots to snag Alabama wide receiver Julio Jones. It didn't take long for that move to look good, as Jones caught 54 passes and scored eight touchdowns as a rookie on a playoff team, then exploded for 1,198 yards and 10 touchdowns in Grimes' last year in Atlanta.
Those incredible numbers proved to be a mere appetizer. After an injury-shortened 2013 season, Jones has caught an astounding 240 passes for 3,464 yards and 14 touchdowns over the past two years. In this golden age for NFL receivers, Jones has been at the absolute top of the heap in 2014 and 2015. He is sure to be right back at the peak in 2016.
Grimes, however, might be able to help Jones off to a slow start to the new campaign. An outstanding cover corner with ball-hawking skills – as evidenced by 13 interceptions over the last three years – Grimes just might draw Jones as an all-day assignment. There's almost no chance that any NFL defender will pitch a shutout against Jones in 2016, but the Bucs' new corner will surely bring confidence and a feisty attitude to the task. Jones was targeted an incredible 203 times by QB Matt Ryan last year, or nearly 13 times per game; if Ryan decides to force it in that direction on opening day, Grimes just may get a chance or two to make a play on the football.
2. Jameis Winston vs. Tyrann Mathieu
Tyrann Mathieu was in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year last season before a torn ACL cut his season short in December. The Cardinals' excellent defense sorely missed its most versatile and impactful player in the weeks that followed, especially in a 49-15 loss at Carolina that marked its playoff exit.
Drafting Mathieu in the third round in 2013 despite some significant off-field issues has proved to be a brilliant gamble for Cardinals General Manager Steve Keim. In addition to emerging as the team's emotional leader, Mathieu has carved out a dual role that sees him at free safety in base packages and in the slot as a cornerback in nickel formations. Assuming that Mathieu has returned from his injury by Week Two of the new season, when the Buccaneers visit Glendale, he will be the one defender Jameis Winston will have to account for on every snap.
Early in his rookie season, Winston unsurprisingly had trouble avoiding turnovers. What eventually made his debut campaign such a rousing success was that he was able to confront and solve that issue and others, improving steadily as the season went on. Winston threw seven interceptions in his first four NFL games, but only eight more over the next 12 contests.
In 2016, he will look to limit the giveaways from Day One. Mathieu won't make it easy, however. He had five interceptions and 17 passes defensed last year, and when he went down with his injury his teammates said there was no way to replace the "splash plays" he brings to the defense.
3. Lavonte David vs. Jamaal Charles
When Jamaal Charles went down with his own season-ending injury in Week Five last year, his Kansas City Chiefs were in the midst of their fourth straight loss. At 1-4 and with their star runner sidelined, the Chiefs looked to be on the verge of a lost season. Instead, with the ballcarrying duties split between Charcandrick West and Spencer Ware, Kansas City finished the season on a 10-game winning streak and made the playoffs.
So are the Chiefs better off without Charles? Don't count on it. Charles has a sizzling career average of 5.5 yards per carry, and that's not on a small sample size. His 1,320 career totes included an average of exactly 250 per year from 2012-14, during which he also caught 145 passes and scored a total of 38 touchdowns. West and Ware performed admirably last year but Charles is one of the NFL's difference-makers. The Chiefs, whose passing game generates very few big plays, need that.
And the Bucs will need to keep it from happening on November 20 when they visit the Chiefs, right after that aforementioned three-game homestand. The good news is that the Buccaneers featured the NFL's 11th-best rushing defense in 2015, and they ranked second in yards allowed per carry at 3.45. The offseason additions of Daryl Smith and Robert Ayers should make that defense even more stout, and the draft could bring another key piece or two.
It is Lavonte David, however, who will be the key to slowing down Charles. The team's annual tackle leader, David makes plays from sideline to sideline and is particularly adept at slicing through the line and blowing up runs before they can really get started. If Charles gets into the open field, he could easily take it the distance, but that's difficult to do with David patrolling the box and making it hard to get around the edge on sweeps.
4. Mike Evans vs. Richard Sherman
Speaking of difference-makers, the Buccaneers face another one the very next week, this time on defense. The Seattle Seahawks, who visit Raymond James Stadium on November 27, will bring a star-studded defense loaded with playmakers to town, but cornerback Richard Sherman cuts the highest profile.
A three-time Pro Bowler and three-time first-team All-Pro, Sherman has racked up 26 interceptions in just five seasons. That's even more remarkable given that his well-deserved reputation as a playmaker obviously prompts some quarterbacks to look to whatever part of the field he's not occupying. If the Seahawks choose to have Sherman shadow Evans, that could be an issue for Winston and the Bucs' top option in the passing game.
Seattle doesn't always put Sherman on the opponent's number-one receiver for an entire game. However, given Evans' size (6-5, 230), they may think it's best to keep him occupied by Sherman, who stands 6-3 and is capable of matching Evans' physical playing style. Last year, Sherman had one of his best games against one of the NFL's biggest receiver threats when the Seahawks played the Steelers. When covered by Sherman, Antonio Brown caught just three passes for nine yards in a Seahawks win in late November.
](http://www.buccaneers.com/videos/videos/Evans-on-Building-Chemistry-with-Winston/572e6ffc-1892-4d09-a665-7686c0a1dd67)Last year, Evans joined Randy Moss as the only two players in NFL history to record two 1,000-yard receiving seasons before turning 23. Despite increasing his catch and yardage totals in his second year after a breakout rookie campaign, Evans was left somewhat dissatisfied with his overall efforts and is driven to do even more in 2016. He and Winston both believe they have yet to develop a true bond on the field, and if they are able to do so this season, they could become a lethal combination. They will get a very stiff test in Week 12, however.
5. Robert Ayers vs. Tyron Smith
Robert Ayers left the NFC East for the NFC South when he signed with the Buccaneers as an unrestricted free agent in March. He'll see a familiar opponent in Week 15, however.
That's when the Buccaneers travel to Dallas to take on the Cowboys, a team Ayers faced four times during his two very productive years with the New York Giants. The strength of that Cowboys squad for the past several seasons has been its offensive line, which features a trio of Pro Bowlers. And that unit is anchored by Tyron Smith, who is on the short list for the best left tackle in football.
How exactly the Buccaneers will deploy their defensive linemen in 2016 is something that will be determined over the next five months, but Ayers will obviously be prominently involved after racking up nine sacks in just 12 games last year in New York. He should see plenty of time rushing off the quarterback's blind side, which in Dallas would pit him against Smith, a 6-5, 320-pounder with amazing foot quickness.
According to Pro Football Focus, Smith allowed five sacks last season, three of which came on plays in which the defender went right at him and pushed him backward. That's not exactly signs of a weakness, but it does highlight just how effectively the Cowboys star tackle can counter the moves of even the best pass-rushers. Ayers will probably need to utilize his entire bag of tricks, power and speed, to make an impact in the backfield in Week 15. Whoever wins this battle, it will be fun to watch.