Thanks to Hurricane Irma, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers are making just their second road trip of 2017, even though the season is already halfway through its second month. The first foray away from Tampa didn't go well, as the Buccaneers lost at Minnesota in Week Three, 34-17. That was the team's most lopsided loss on the road since a 40-7 defeat in Arizona in Week Two of the 2016 campaign.
Well, the Buccaneers find themselves back in Arizona with a chance to make up for both of those losses. They were actually a pretty good road team in 2016, winning five times away from home, including two on long trips to the Pacific Time Zone. It's debatable whether the loss in Arizona or the five road wins has any bearing on Sunday's game, but the Buccaneers know they have to be better away from home then they were three weeks ago.
"That's hard to measure," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "It's hard to measure how that's going to affect you from one year to the next, let alone from one week to the next. This team, our 2017 season, this will be our second road test and we didn't fare too well on our first one. So we're looking for improvement just in that area."
In last year's game at University of Phoenix Stadium, lead running back Doug Martin pulled a hamstring on his second carry in the first quarter. That injury, a subsequent setback and an eventual suspension at the end of the year essentially wiped out his 2016 season after he had been wildly successful in 2015. After finishing up that suspension over the first three games of this year, Martin returned in the Bucs' last game and looked very sharp, rushing 13 times for 74 yards and a touchdown against the Patriots. He'll probably get an even larger share of the rushing load this week and could be a difference-maker for the Buccaneers.
"I really think that Doug looks healthy," said Koetter. "He looks like he really didn't miss too much time. Now, I still think there can be a little bit of a conditioning issue because training and playing football aren't the same. But he got 25 plays almost 10 days ago against New England and I think he'll be ready to get up into the 40 range in this game.
"Running backs, when they're taking those hits when they have the football, those are violent hits. I know Doug was sore after the New England game; he's feeling a lot better now. That is something that I think you just have to get in your groove."
When the Buccaneers are on defense, they'll look to build on a pass rush that showed improvement against the Patriots and Tom Brady in the last game, recording three sacks and pressuring Brady fairly often. The Bucs' defense had produced just one sack in the first three games of the season combined. This could be a good opportunity for the Bucs' defensive front to make a bigger impact; Arizona's Carson Palmer has been sacked a league-high 19 times through five games.
"I think that we're learning, more than anything, that it doesn't matter how fast you are off the edge, if you run five yards behind the quarterback you're not going to affect the quarterback," said Koetter. "I thought we did a much better job against New England keeping pressure in his face. Even though you don't always get there, sometimes you're just knocking the line back into his face. It depends on the type of quarterback you're playing. I think Carson Palmer this week is a similar style quarterback to Brady, and I mean that in that he's not going to beat you by running towards the sideline. He wants to stay in the pocket, slide around – he's a big guy – but he wants to stay in there and make his reads. If you can pressure him in his face and push him back and not allow him to stride into his throws, that helps you."
A look back at all of the match-ups between the Buccaneers and the Cardinals.
Behind that front line, the Bucs' defense should be stronger thanks to the returns of linebacker Lavonte David and safety T.J. Ward, both of whom have missed two games due to injury. However, linebacker Kwon Alexander and safety Keith Tandy remain out. David will step back in as the weakside 'backer next to rookie Kendell Beckwith, who has been impressive in the middle in the absence of Alexander. Ward gives the Bucs a deep safety rotation with Chris Conte and rookie Justin Evans.
"It's been good to start to get a few of our injured guys back and be closer to full-speed in practice," said Koetter. "Obviously, you're never quite a hundred percent once the season starts but it's good to get a few of those guys back out there working."
In addition to Alexander and Tandy, the Buccaneers declared the following players inactive for today's game: TE Antony Auclair, C Joe Hawley, CB Josh Robinson, DE Ryan Russell and T Leonard Wester. Robinson and Russell are also out due to injury.
The Buccaneers and Cardinals kickoff at 4:05 p.m. ET at University of Phoenix Stadium. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.