The short week that leads to a Thursday night game is a physical challenge for every player in the NFL. For the Tampa Bay Buccaneers heading into Week Eight, the more important test may be the mental one.
The Buccaneers suffered a surprising 21-3 defeat to the now 2-5 Carolina Panthers on Sunday in Charlotte, giving them four losses in the last five weeks and leaving the team searching for answers as to why the start to its 2022 season has been so deeply unsatisfying. They won't have much time to contemplate such issues, though, as the Baltimore Ravens will be visiting Raymond James Stadium on Thursday for a marquee prime-time matchup on Thursday night. Kickoff is scheduled for 8:15 p.m. ET.
Somehow, though, the Buccaneers have to find the mental strength to dig out of their unexpected tailspin.
"Toughness," said Head Coach Todd Bowles after Sunday's loss when asked about what has to change regarding the team's mental approach. "You've got to have mental toughness and mental fortitude. The older guys have to prove they can still play. The younger guys got to prove they belong, and the coaches got to get better every day. That's really it. Toughness. Mental toughness."
The Bucs loss to the Panthers dropped them to 3-4 marking the only time since Tom Brady the team has been under .500 since a Week One loss to the Saints in 2020. Tampa Bay went on to win Super Bowl LV at the conclusion of that season but will have to make some immediate and significant improvements to stay in contention for the title this year. The Bucs' Brady-led offense has struggled to maintain any consistency and the defense is experiencing a three-game takeaway drought.
"We're plenty capable of making plays," said Brady, who threw for 290 yards in Charlotte but had almost no support from the run game and a lack of success in the red zone for a third straight week. "We're just not making them consistently enough to score points. Make a big play. Make a bad play. Make a big play. Make a bad play. In football, it's just not good enough. You can't play like that. You got to string enough good plays together to get the ball into the red area and score points. Just haven't done that."
The Ravens will bring an NFL MVP candidate to town in quarterback Lamar Jackson, who has helped Baltimore to a 4-3 start by throwing for 1,400 yards and 13 touchdowns and rushing for another 500 with two more scores. The Ravens held on to a 23-20 win over the Cleveland Browns in Week Seven, continuing a season-long trend of alternating wins and losses. Baltimore has the NFL's fifth-best scoring offense at 26.3 points per game but is 20th in points allowed at 23.5 per game.
Jackson's passing attack runs through tight end Mark Andrews, though the veteran pass-catcher was a bit banged up in Week Seven and did not catch a single pass. Second-year receiver Rashod Bateman has also dealt with injuries but is averaging 19.0 yards per catch. Running back Gus Edwards played for the first time since 2020 in the win over Cleveland and immediately ran for 66 yards and two touchdowns.
Baltimore's defense features a deep assortment of pass rushers in Justin Houston (2.0 sacks), Calais Campbell (2.0), Justin Madubuike (2.5), Odafe Oweh (1.0) and former Buccaneer Jason Pierre-Paul (1.0). Cornerbacks Marcus Peters and Marlon Humphrey lead a secondary that has big-play potential but is giving up nearly 300 passing yards per game.
The Buccaneers and Ravens are both tied for first in their respective divisions, though Baltimore's battle with Cincinnati currently seems more promising than Tampa Bay's match with the 3-4 Atlanta Falcons. The Ravens have lost three games by four or fewer points and won two by the same margins. Lamar Jackson and company will present a steep challenge on Thursday night for a Buccaneer team that is determined to right the ship by proving its mental toughness.