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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Buccaneers-Texans: Top Storylines & Key Matchups in Week Nine

The Bucs will be seeking a faster start on offense in Houston on Sunday as they try to snap a three-game losing streak…Texans rookie C Jarrett Patterson against Bucs DL Vita Vea could be one of the key matchups

top storylines

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers head back out on the road in Week Nine, as they continue a run of six away games over the span of eight weeks. The upcoming destination is Houston, one of the three NFL cities in which the Tampa Bay franchise is still seeking its first win. (A near-miss Hail Mary pass is all that separated the Buccaneers from their first win in Buffalo in Week Eight.) The opponent is the Houston Texans, who have already won as many games as they did all of last season and who seem well on their way to their best record since 2019.

It's a battle of 3-4 teams, both of which are coming off close losses on the road. The Buccaneers dropped a 24-18 decision to the Bills after twice falling behind by double digits. The Texans gave the Carolina Panthers their first win of the season, as Eddy Pineiro hit a 23-yard field goal as time expired in a 15-13 final. The Texans actually lost their first two games while the Buccaneers started out 2-0, but the pendulum has swung for both teams since. Houston followed that start with a 3-1 stretch, including an impressive win over the now 6-2 Jacksonville Jaguars. Tampa Bay has dropped three in a row to relinquish first place in the NFC South.

Even if the 2023 season doesn't yield the Texans their first playoff berth since 2019, it will almost certainly be viewed as a success thanks to one very important decision. A stunning comeback win over Indianapolis in Week 18 last season cost Houston the top spot in the draft and their pick among all the quarterbacks, but in the end, it worked out marvelously. After Carolina took Alabama's Bryce Young, the Texans used the next pick on Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, who has easily been the most impressive of the rookie quarterbacks so far this season. Often looking like a polished veteran, Stroud has completed 60.3% of his passes and has only thrown one interception against nine touchdowns. That first pick didn't come until his sixth start.

The Texans have started developing a fine cast of pass-catchers around Stroud and they have four different players with 22 or more catches already. One of those four is veteran wideout Robert Woods, though Woods missed last week's game with a foot injury. Leading the way is third-year receiver Nico Collins, who is having a breakout season and has already surpassed his previous season high with 577 yards on 33 catches, with a stellar 17.5 yards per catch average. Rookie Tank Dell has come on lately and the Texans also have a viable pass-catching option at tight end with former Cowboy Dalton Schultz.

Though the Texans couldn't pass on Stroud with the second pick, they also wanted to get new Head Coach DeMeco Ryans a top-notch pass rusher to allow him to scheme up the defense the way he did so well in San Francisco. That led to the most dramatic trade of draft weekend, as the Texans didn't even catch their breath after the Stroud selection before sending three picks, including next year's first, to Arizona for the third pick. That one was used on Alabama's Will Anderson, considered the best pure pass-rusher in the draft.

With Jonathan Greenard having a breakout season on the other end and Maliek Collins and Sheldon Rankins applying pressure up the middle, Anderson completes a dangerous front that has helped produce 15 sacks. Houston's overall defensive results have been much like what the Buccaneers have done: While they rank just 18th in yards allowed, the Texans are exactly tied with the Buccaneers for sixth in points allowed (18.3 per game). Like Tampa Bay, Houston has been very stingy in the red zone (45.9% touchdown rate allowed) and has a strong turnover ratio of plus-four.

With the highly-respected Ryans at the helm and Stroud hitting the ground running, the Texans definitely appear to be on an upward trajectory after three straight seasons with four or fewer wins. They trail the Jaguars by 2.5 games in the AFC South but are just one win out of a Wild Card spot. Meanwhile, the Buccaneers go into the weekend just a half-game behind both New Orleans and Atlanta. There is plenty at stake as the NFL's 27th franchise meets its 32nd on Sunday at NRG Stadium. Kickoff is at 1:00 p.m. ET.

Here are four major storylines and four head-to-head player battles to keep an eye on as the Bucs try to get back in the win column against an up-and-coming squad.


Bring on the Rookies – While Stroud hasn't played like a rookie, he is one, of course, and the Bucs may be seeing a lot of those in the weeks to come. After Week Nine, Tampa Bay may encounter Tennessee's Will Levis in Week 10 and Carolina's Bryce Young two times in the last six weeks. The common approach against rookie quarterbacks is to try to pressure and confuse them as much as possible, but that wouldn't exactly be a departure from Todd Bowles' normal style of play-calling. This season, the Buccaneers are blitzing on 39.0% of pass plays, the third-highest rate in the league, and Bowles generally tries to disguise his looks as much as possible. He's willing to send virtually any defender as a blitzer, though safety Antoine Winfield Jr. and linebacker Devin White are usually his best options. If the Bucs can get home with their pressures, they should like the results. As good as Stroud has been – he has a 94.9 passer rating, an EPA per drop back of +0.04, a success rate of 44.8% and a sack rate of 5.7% overall – he has, like every quarterback and especially the inexperienced ones, seen far less success when under pressure. In that circumstance he has a passer rating of 70.0, an EPA per drop back of -0.61, a success rate of 28.6% and a sack rate of 16.5%.

Getting Back in the Race – As noted above, the Buccaneers have fallen out of first place in the NFC South after taking the early lead, but they haven't fallen far. After the Falcons lost to Tennessee in Week Eight, they were left in a tie for first with the 4-4 Saints, which means the Buccaneers could conceivably be back in first by the end of the weekend. They're going to need some help from the NFC North, however, and it's going to take some upsets. Atlanta is favored at home against a Minnesota team that no longer has Kirk Cousins, and the Saints are big favorites at home against the 2-6 Bears. Of course, the Buccaneers have to take care of their own business first, and that involves ending a run of four losses in their last five outings. They won't have the benefit of a reset either; it's an all-out sprint to the finish without a break after the Bucs took their bye in Week Five. This week, Tampa Bay is coming off something of a mini-bye following their Thursday night game in Buffalo, and Bowles said on Monday that the team may be as healthy now as it has been all year. The Bucs will have to go through the AFC South if they want a shot at reclaiming first place, as three of their next four games are against teams from that division.

Seeking a Faster Start – The Bucs scored a touchdown in the first quarter of their first-place showdown with Atlanta two weeks ago and hoped it would be the start of a new trend. Prior to that, the team hadn't found the end zone a single time in the first quarters of its first five games. Alas, it didn't stick, as Tampa Bay dropped behind the Bills, 10-0 last Thursday before rallying to tie it before halftime. In addition to its lack of opening-period TDs, the Buccaneers have also only scored first in two of its seven games, both of which resulted in victories. Tampa Bay's average of 1.9 points in the first quarter is tied for 29th in the NFL, ahead of only the Jets and the Giants. Houston has averaged 4.9 points per game in the first quarter, which means the Buccaneers have a good chance of falling behind early if they can't get off to a faster start than usual. The key is likely to be converting on third downs, which was a strength for the Bucs' offense early in the season but has become a bit of an issue in recent games. The Bucs are just 12 of 39 on third downs over their three-game losing streak.

Keeping the Pocket Clean – While Stroud's effectiveness has followed the usual pattern when pressure has been applied, Mayfield has actually performed remarkably well in that circumstance. While he is no longer one of only two quarterbacks with positive EPA (it was him and Josh Allen before both of their unsustainably high numbers slipped), he still ranks first among qualifying passers with mark of -1.1. Allen is next at -1.7. Mayfield has yet to throw an interception while under pressure. Still, as impressive as Mayfield has been under pressure, the Bucs would prefer he did not have to work that kind of magic. Houston ranks just 24th in sacks per pass play (6.12%) but as noted above they have the makings of a very dangerous front. Tampa Bay's offense has worked in fits and starts in recent weeks but has shown enough flashes to indicate that the team has the potential to be consistently productive in new coordinator Dave Canales's system. It would help the Bucs' blockers keep pressure off Mayfield if the offense could establish any kind of effective run game to reduce his exposure to pass rushers and put more bite into play-action fakes.


1. Texans WR Tank Dell vs. Buccaneers S Christian Izien

Houston nabbed Nathaniel "Tank" Dell with the 69th overall pick back in April, making him the ninth receiver off the board. Dell was hugely productive at Houston – in 2022 he caught 109 passes in 13 games for 1,398 yards and 17 touchdowns – and he pairs innate separation ability with explosive mobs, but he fell to the third round almost surely because of his 5-8, 165-pound frame. That hasn't stopped him from producing early in his career, and he has started to come on strong in recent weeks. Over his last three games, Dell has hauled in 15 passes for 251 yards and two scores. When Dell goes into the slot, as he has down on about a fifth of his snaps this season, he'll be matched up with another rookie who may have been undervalued due to his height. Bucs safety Christian Izien, in fact, went completely undrafted but landed in a good spot after signing in Tampa. The Buccaneers believed the 5-10 Izien – who may be short by NFL standards but is built like, well, a tank – would be a good option in the slot, and in fact the rookie won that job in training camp. Izien has the short-area movement and change-of-direction skills necessary to thrive in that job, and he is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. The Dell-Izien matchups on Sunday won't feature the tallest players on the field but it should be one of the fiercest battles.

2. Buccaneers T Luke Goedeke vs. Texans DE Will Anderson

As noted earlier, the Texans surrendered a large amount of draft capital to land Will Anderson after they took C.J. Stroud, giving them their most coveted players on both sides of the ball. Anderson only has one sack through his first seven NFL games, but that doesn't mean he hasn't made a noticeable impact. When the Texans beat the Saints in Week Six, Anderson was credited with seven quarterback pressures – as were both Jonathan Greenard and Jerry Hughes – giving him 25 through his first six outings. He added a 26th pressure in Week Eight. Anderson has a pressure rate of 14.0% so far this season, which is good, but what really stands out is his average get-off at the snap of 0.76 seconds. That's what Bucs right tackle Luke Goedeke will be dealing with because the Texans tend to leave Anderson on that side of the line and Greenard over the left tackle. Goedeke has had a strong start to his first season as the Bucs' right tackle and has been particularly good in pass blocking. According to Pro Football Focus, he has only allowed one sack so far this season, making him a very effective bookend to star left tackle Tristan Wirfs. Goedeke has nimble feet for a man his size and has shown that he can mirror pass-rush moves and win hand-to-hand battles.

3. Texans C Michael Dieter vs. Buccaneers DL Vita Vea

The Texans drafted Penn State's Juice Scruggs in the second round, presumably to battle veteran Scott Quessenberry for the starting center job. Quessenberry suffered a season-ending knee injury early in training camp, seemingly ending that competition, but Scruggs then suffered his own hamstring injury four weeks later and landed on injured reserve, where he remains. That pushed sixth-round pick Jarrett Patterson into the spotlight, as he moved over from guard, where he had been practicing in camp, to the pivot and was the Week One starter. However, Patterson was placed on injured reserve on Tuesday after he suffered an ankle injury against Carolina. Now the Panthers presumably move on to Michael Dieter, who started 23 games at guard and center for the Dolphins between 2019-21. The Buccaneers hope to get Pro Bowl nose tackle Vita Vea back after he missed last Thursday's game with a groin injury, and if that happens it will be a significant test for Dieter in his first start in two years. That would be a big boost to the Bucs' run defense; according to Next Gen Stats, the Bucs allow opposing running backs 1.6 yards before they first make contact with a defender when Via is off the field, and 0.8 when he's on the field. Vea also happens to be the team's sack leader this season, with 3.5. The enormous but quick-footed Vea often draws double teams, but at some point he's likely to have a one-on-one with the Texans' new starting center.

4. Buccaneers WR Chris Godwin vs. Texans CB Steven Nelson

Chris Godwin has been the picture of consistency for the Buccaneers' offense, catching at least five passes for at least 50 yards in 14 of his last 15 games. He is also a favorite target for Baker Mayfield in clutch situations, such as third downs and – at least in the last game – around the goal line, as Godwin made an incredible effort to catch a hard pass on a quick slant into the end zone. The seventh-year veteran can do it all – covering the middle of the field, picking up yards after the catch, turning quick screens into big gains and snaring passes with defenders all over him. Nelson is in just his second season with Houston but he has a ton of starting experience in the NFL, having logged 106 starts with the Chiefs, Steelers, Eagles and Texans. Nelson leads the Texans and is tied for third in the NFL with three interceptions, which is already just one shy of his own single-season best. Nelson has also broken up five passes and added 26 tackles. One of his picks came in the closing minutes of the aforementioned win over New Orleans, clinching the Texans' win. As a whole, Houston's defense is giving up 236.1 passing yards per game, which ranks 23rd in the NFL. Since the Bucs have had difficulty running the ball and the Texans have done a good job of stopping the run, the visitors may have to get it done through the air on Sunday. How well Nelson can limit Godwin's numbers could end up being a key factor in the final outcome.

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