The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Denver Broncos on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff at Empower Field at Mile High. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
OLB Shaquil Barrett. On Thursday, the NFL's reigning sack king said all the things you would expect about going back to Denver, his first NFL home. And surely, they were heartfelt sentiments. He said he wouldn't be the player he is now without those formative years in Denver, that players like Von Miller helped him hone his game and that he's looking forward to seeing the remaining Broncos who were his teammates. He also said this: "It's going to feel good to go back there, try to get another win. That's the most important thing – to come out as a winner and be 2-1 so we can be on the right page for setting us up for the rest of the season. I just want to show them that they did have the chance to have me and they let me go. I'm happy with my situation down here – I love it. It's literally the best plan that could have happened and it worked out." Translation: Winning the game is the most important thing but it would feel awfully good to play a big role in that win. Barrett, who famously had nine sacks through his first four games last year, his first in Tampa after five years in Denver, has yet to record one this year but he says he had several opportunities that he missed in Week Two. Don't bet on Barrett missing those opportunities in Week Three if they arise.
QB Tom Brady. Keep an eye on the quarterback – you don't say? Yes, this may be obvious but there are a couple reasons to be particularly interested in Brady's performance this weekend. Will he post his first 300-yard passing game as a Buccaneer? If he does, he'll tie Peyton Manning for the second-most such outings in NFL history, with 93, and he'll do it in the very house that Manning got his 93rd. Brady's first two games as a Buc have produced 239 and 217 passing yards, respectively, but he drew more than 100 yards of pass interference penalties with well-thrown balls in the first one and his targets dropped three potential big gains in the second one. Brady wouldn't have to change much to get to 300 on Sunday. Also there's the matter of Denver being the only team against which Brady has a (barely) losing record against, counting regular season and postseason together. Why bring up an apparent negative? You did see the "only" part in that sentence, right? Manning had a losing record against four teams. Drew Brees currently has four teams on his list. Brett Favre was on the down side against five teams. If the Bucs win Sunday, Brady's record against Denver will be evened up at 8-8, and then there will be none.
DL Vita Vea. The Buccaneers got a lot of pressure on Carolina's Teddy Bridgewater up the middle in Week Two. Vea didn't have a hand in any of the three sacks recorded by the Bucs' interior lineman, but according to Head Coach Bruce Arians he was actively disruptive and probably should have been rewarded with a couple holding calls. This week, the Bucs' massive but nimble nose tackle will be matched up with a rookie center in Lloyd Cushenberry who, by the account of his own head coach, had a rough game against Pittsburgh last weekend. Cushenberry, a third-round pick, is obviously a talented player who may rebound strongly this week, but if he gives Vea any opportunities it could be a problem for new starting quarterback Jeff Driskel. DL Ndamukong Suh, who had two of those aforementioned three sacks against Carolina, said he has seen "amazing growth" from Vea in terms of understanding how the opposition is going to block him and how he worked hard to make himself even more athletic during the offseason. Vea didn't get in on the DL sack party last weekend but don't be surprised if he finds his way to the quarterback this Sunday.
WR Chris Godwin. The Bucs' leading receiver in 2019 and in Week One of 2020 before missed the last game with a concussion, will be looking to make up for lost time in Denver. Godwin has averaged 94.1 receiving yards per game since the start of 2019, second only to the Saints' Michael Thomas in that span, and his missing production was evident in last Sunday's game against Carolina. Mike Evans stepped up in a big way in the absence of his talented running mate, but otherwise the only big play produced by Tampa Bay's passing attack came on a trick-play flea-flicker to Justin Watson. Denver has the NFL's 27th-ranked pass defense, giving up 274.0 yards per game through the air through two weeks, and may be down another cornerback with Davontae Harris working through a hamstring injury. With veteran A.J. Bouye on injured reserve, the Broncos have leaned on rookie cornerback Michael Ojemudia, a third-round pick who is getting an abrupt introduction to the NFL. Godwin is the Buccaneers' best pass-catcher in terms of adding yards after the catch and it should make a big difference to have that element added back into the Buccaneers' offense on Sunday.
RB Leonard Fournette. Head Coach Bruce Arians has made it clear: Ronald Jones is the Buccaneers' starting running back and he still plans to use both Jones and Fournette as much as possible (with LeSean McCoy in more of a pass-catching role). It probably is not particularly important which of those two is the starter in the Bucs' backfield; one can help the offense get into a groove early while the other can provide fresh legs at the end. Still, whether or not the starting job is at stake, it will be interesting to see how Fournette follows up on his 100-yard game in Week Two. Will that be the start of him gradually getting more and more of the workload, or was it just a matter of him having the hot hand on that particular afternoon? Head Coach Bruce Arians says Fournette, who is 6-0 and nearly 230 pounds, runs with "little guy" instincts and vision, which is an interesting brand of praise that highlights the fourth-year back's combination of power and quickness. Fournette can also turn on the jets, as he showed when he reached 21.44 miles per hour on his game-clinching touchdown run against Carolina, the third-fastest speed any Buc has reached this year.
View pictures of the Buccaneers' new pewter uniforms.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 32.1%/57.1%/20.0%. Those numbers all refer to third-down success rates. The first one is what Denver's defense has allowed in total, which is the fourth-best mark in the league. That will be a challenge for Tom Brady and the Buccaneers' offense, but the bigger test they need to pass is one of consistency. The second percentage above indicates how well Tampa Bay has done on third downs in the first halves of their two games so far. Unfortunately, the third number above is the Bucs' third-down success rate in the second halves of those games. The Bucs are looking to play a more consistent four quarters on offense.
· 601. That's how many snaps already taken by rookies for the Broncos through two games, the second-most for any team in the NFL. First and second-round wide receivers Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler are already important parts of the offense with Courtland Sutton on injured reserve and Cushenberry is starting at center. As noted, third-round cornerback Michael Ojemudia has also been pressed into a starting role with A.J. Bouye on injured reserve.
· 73.8%. Jamel Dean should expect to play a lot on Sunday. The Broncos' offense has put its "11" personnel on the field for nearly three quarters of its plays so far, and those plays have accounted for 500 of the team's 642 yards of offense. This is true even though Hamler missed the first game and Sutton was hurt midway through Week Two. That means the Buccaneers' defense will be in the nickel quite a bit, if Denver sticks to this trend even with a new quarterback. That's not a bad thing for the Bucs. Their defense has given up 4.98 yards per play when in the nickel, compared to 5.87 per play when in base.
· 0-2/2-5/2-3/4-0. Last week, Tampa Bay's defense forced four turnovers by the Panthers, helping the Bucs win the takeaway battle, 4-2, and also the game, 31-17. In the 18 games since Bruce Arians took over as the Buccaneers' head coach, the team's chances of victory have risen sharply whenever the defense has started taking the ball away. Those four sets of numbers above are the Bucs' records in games in which they've had, in order, zero takeaways, one takeaway, two takeaways and three or more takeaways.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers roster as it currently stands.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Obviously, the biggest change in the starting lineup for either team is under center for the Broncos, as Jeff Driskel will be playing for the injured Drew Lock. Driskel actually has one more career NFL start than Lock, having opened five games for Cincinnati in 2018 and three more for Detroit last year. Driskel threw for 256 yards and two touchdowns in relief of Lock last week in Pittsburgh and overall has a 12-7 TD-INT ratio in his career. He's also averaged 22.0 rushing yards per game in his career.
· Last year, Chris Godwin and Mike Evans finished second and fourth in the NFL, respectively, in receiving yards per game, making them the most productive starting WR duo in the NFL. This Sunday is the first time both will be in the lineup and not hampered by injury. Evans played through a painful hamstring injury in Week One and Godwin missed last Sunday's game due to a concussion.
· With Courtland Sutton now on injured reserve, the Buccaneers' defense should expect to see a lot of the Broncos' two rookie receivers, Jerry Jeudy and K.J. Hamler. The receiver who has actually seen the most snaps for the Broncos through two games, however, is third-year man Tim Patrick. As for which receiver will challenge Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot, it will likely be mostly Jeudy. The Broncos had seven receivers on the roster before Sutton hit IR, and six of them saw some action in the slot in the first two games. However, Jeudy's 57 snaps there was by far the most of those six.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE BRONCOS
The Broncos' offense features an emerging star at tight end in Noah Fant and two dynamic rookies at receiver who could quickly become dangerous weapons. Jeudy in particular is a precise route-runner out of the slot who is a challenge to cover man-to-man. With Driskel in for Lock, the Buccaneers will also have to be concerned about the quarterback scrambling and possibly running on some designed plays. On defense, Denver is ranked 22nd overall but has fared quite well on third downs and in the red zone. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Fant is fast. Very fast. In 2019, he solidified his spot as a first-rounder when he ran a 4.5-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine and also dominated the three-cone drill, the vertical leap and the broad jump. The 6-4, 250-pound tight end gets up to top speed in a hurry and can be a very difficult matchup for most NFL linebackers. A decent blocker as well, Fant has taken 76% of his snaps in tight with an offensive tackle but has also been lined up in the slot 19% of the time and out wide for the other five percent. His route chart on the NFL's Next Gen stats database shows him going to all corners of the field, including four on which he has ended up more than 30 yards downfield. New quarterback starter Jeff Driskel threw in Fant's direction five times in Week Two, leading to four catches for 57 yards and a touchdown.
Third-year edge rusher Bradley Chubb may be working his way back to peak form as he is early in his return from a 2019 ACL tear. His percentage of defensive snaps increased from 73% in the opener to 86% last week in Pittsburgh. Chubb doesn't have any sacks yet in 2020 but he racked up 12 of them as a rookie in 2018 after he was drafted fifth overall. He does have two quarterback hits, however, and it's only a matter of time before his pass-rushes start getting home again. The 6-4, 275-pound Chubb has a quick first step and can also turn his speed into a power move. He has a well-developed array of pass-rush moves and can twist and dip to get around the outside on an opposing tackle. With Von Miller potentially missing the entire season, the Broncos need Chubb to emerge as their most lethal pass-rusher; the Bucs will try to delay that by one more week.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how the offense has progressed since the start of the season and how it looks with both Mike Evans and Chris Godwin healthy and practicing together: "I think everybody's just getting a little more continuity. Mike didn't practice for eight [or] nine days, then Chris didn't practice for seven days. It looked more like our offense in practice this week with everybody out there practicing. We were more in sync. We're not where we need to be yet, but we're getting closer and closer."