The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' travel-heavy first half of the season is over and the team finally returns home in Week 10 to take on the Arizona Cardinals. Five of the Buccaneers' final eight games will be played at Raymond James Stadium, and if there's any chance of the team climbing from 2-6 into playoff contention, it will have to begin with the establishing a home field advantage. The first test comes from a Cardinals team that has already won road games in Cincinnati and New York on its way to a 3-5-1 record.
Sunday's game is an interesting one for Bruce Arians, who is in his first year as Tampa Bay's head coach after five seasons (2013-17) at the helm in Arizona, during which he became the winningest coach in the Cardinals' century-long history. Much has changed in the two seasons since Arians left the desert, however, as his successor, Steve Wilks lasted just one year before Arizona pulled Kliff Kingsbury from the college ranks to plumb his offensive mind. Kingsbury and the Cardinals subsequently drafted Kyler Murray first-overall to replace their 2018 first-round pick, the since-traded Josh Rosen, and Murray appears to have a bright future in the NFL are a very intriguing half-season so far.
The Cardinals started their season with a tie against the Detroit Lions, and their three subsequent wins have come against teams with a combined three wins this year. However, Murray and Arizona most recently took the undefeated San Francisco 49ers down to the wire last Thursday night, with the rookie quarterback throwing two touchdown passes and also running for 34 yards. The Cardinals' offense has been without top running back David Johnson, but a trade with Miami paid off instantly when Kenyan Drake put up 162 yards from scrimmage in his Arizona debut in that Thursday game. Meanwhile, the Cardinals' defense can really bring the pressure off the edges, with proven veteran outside linebackers Chandler Johnson and Terrell Suggs combining for 14.5 of the team's 23 sacks so far. Arizona's defense also got better three weeks ago when eight-time Pro Bowl cornerback Patrick Peterson returned from a suspension. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against the Cardinals when they return home on Sunday:
Kyler Murray is Arizona's leading rusher, but largely because injuries have forced them to cycle through David Johnson, Chase Edmonds and now Drake. Still, Murray's legs will be an issue for the Bucs on Sunday (more on that below) and Arizona as a whole has rushed for 120.6 yard per game and ranks fifth in the NFL with a 4.98 yards-per-carry average. Arizona's defense has only picked off two passes, though Peterson already has one in the three games since his return. Here are four specific Cardinals who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. QB Kyler Murray. This is the second week in a row in which we've included the opposing quarterback in this group, despite the previously-stated caveat that the quarterback will always be one of the game's primary difference-makers, whether good or bad. The QB is worth including when he's a unique sort of challenge, and that's the case again this week. The biggest challenge for the Buccaneers' defense this week will be to maintain its rush integrity, because if pass-rushers get out of their lanes Murray can break containment, and that's when he's at his most dangerous. Unlike Seattle's Russell Wilson, who is also extremely good when he's out of the pocket, Murray actually wants to be on the move. The 5-10 rookie is small for an NFL quarterback but he's very fast, quick and elusive. He also has a strong arm, so his big plays on the move can come on either the run or the pass. Through his first nine games, Murray has thrown for 2,229 yards and run for another 313, averaging 5.6 yards per tote.
2. S Budda Baker. A second-round pick by the Cardinals in 2017, Arians' last year at the team's helm, Baker made the Pro Bowl and was a first-team All-Pro as a rookie, but those honors were for his play on special teams. It might not be long for Baker to get those same accolades as a safety. He had a breakout year last year despite, collecting 102 tackles despite missing two games, and he's second on the team this year with 76 tackles to go with four passes defensed and a forced fumble. Baker is very tough and he competes hard on every snap. The Cardinals employ him all over their defense, on the line and deep, and he can cover man-to-man or blitz the quarterback. Arizona may need those coverage skills to help double-team Bucs WR Mike Evans, who has 378 receiving yards and three touchdowns in his last two games.
3. WR Larry Fitzgerald. The 15th-year veteran remains a focal point of Arizona's offense, leading the team in targets (63), receptions (42) and receiving yards (485). He's a perfect asset for a rookie quarterback because he runs his routes precisely and is always going to be where Murray expect him to be. Fitzgerald has put up big numbers out of the slot later in his career but the Cardinals use him all over the line as they offer opposing teams big doses of three and four-receiver sets. Few receivers in NFL history have had better hands than Fitzgerald and he is adept at coming down with contested catches. A complete player, Fitzgerald is even a great blocker who brings his elite competitiveness to that assignment, too.
4. OLB Chandler Jones. Jones needs just one-half of a sack to hit double digits in that category for the fifth year in a row and the sixth time in his eight NFL campaigns. Since coming to Arizona in a 2016 trade with New England, Jones has recorded 50.5 sacks and 147 quarterback hits in 57 games, and he's also forced 13 fumbles in that span, including a league-high four this year. Though he's not the fastest edge rusher in the NFL, Jones has every tool in his kit and can beat blockers in a myriad of ways. He's strong with a violent style of play and he uses his long arms to rock linemen back at the point of contact. When he gets around a blocker, Jones eats up the space to the quarterback with his long strides. However, with Terrell Suggs and his 5.0 sacks coming off the other edge, offenses have to think hard before putting all their attention on Jones.
View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 9 matchup against the Seattle Seahawks.
As noted above, the Cardinals have run the ball well, and they have three different players with 295 or more yards. That doesn't even count Drake, who looks as if he could get there quickly after his first Cardinals game. The kicking game has been good, with Andy Lee averaging 48.1 yards per punt and Zane Gonzalez making 22 of 25 field goals and all 15 extra point attempts. Here are some more specific areas in which the Cardinals have excelled through the first nine weeks of the season:
· Arizona's offense definitely does not hurt itself with turnovers, or at least it hasn't through its first nine games. The Cardinals have committed a league-low four giveaways, all of which are Murray interceptions. Not only has Arizona not lost a fumble this year – the only team in the NFL that can still say that – it has only put the ball on the ground twice in nine games. And though all the turnovers may belong to Murray, it's still a low number, as the Cardinals rank fifth in the NFL in lowest interception percentage (1.26%).
· The Cardinals' defense ranks in the lower half of the league in most categories but it has had something of a boom or bust quality to it. Arizona is allowing 6.10 yards per play, which is fifth-worst, but it has also generated a lot of negative plays. In fact, the Cardinals have forced 56 of those between sacks and tackles for losses, and that's second-best in the NFL behind Buffalo's 57.
· Arizona's offense can strike from a long distance, as it did last Thursday on Andy Isabella's 88-yard touchdown catch. Overall, the Cardinals have already scored on nine plays of 20 or more yards, which is tied for the third-most in the NFL. Overall, Arizona's offense has generated 44 plays of 20 or more yards, including five runs and 39 completions.
· The Cardinals' rush defense hasn't been particularly strong, giving up 126.9 yards per game and 4.51 yards per carry to rank 23rd and 20th in the NFL, respectively. However, teams that have tried to establish the run early by handing off on first down haven't has as much success as they probably expected to have. On first-down carries only, the Cardinals' defense is allowing just 3.6 yards per carry, which is actually fifth-best in the NFL.
Arizona's defense has given up 407.6 yards and 27.9 points per game, which are the third-highest and fifth-highest totals in the league. The Cardinals are 23rd against the run, 29th against the pass and last in interception percentage. On offense, the Cards have struggled in the red zone, getting touchdowns on only 35.48% of their drives, which is the fourth-lowest percentage in the league. In addition:
· Opposing ballcarriers have done a good job of getting around the edges on Arizona's defense. On carries around left end, the Cardinals are giving up 7.24 yards per attempt, second-highest in the NFL. Around right end, the average is 6.46 yards per attempt, eighth-highest in the league.
· As noted above, Arizona's defense has been one of the best in the league at stopping first-down carries. The good news for opposing offenses is that they can still move the sticks if they decide to hand it off on the next play. On second-down runs, the Cardinals are giving up 6.2 yards per carry, which is dead last in the NFL. The league average on second downs is 4.3 yards.
· The Cardinals' offense sometimes has a bit of trouble getting going. Through nine games they have seen 25.5% of their offensive possessions end in three plays or less. That's 25 three-and-outs in 98 possessions, and that's the fifth-highest percentage in the league.
· Even with Patrick Peterson back in the mix, the Cardinals defense is having some trouble defending balls thrown deep downfield. On passes that travel at least 21 yards in the air down the field, the Cardinals have allowed an opposer passer rating of 116.7, fourth-worst in the NFL. They've faced 29 such passes and five have resulted in touchdowns against just one interception.
NEW FACES IN 2019
The Cardinals have a first-year head coach and his hand-picked rookie quarterback, so this is obviously a team on the ground floor of what they think will be an impressive new building. Arizona also swung the recent Kenyan Drake deal in order to remain competitive while the rest of their backfield is banged up. Here are some of Arizona's other key additions in 2019:
1. OLB Terrell Suggs. Suggs played 16 years in Baltimore and left there with 132.5 sacks but he clearly still has something left in the tank. Starting opposite Jones, Suggs has already contributed five more sacks to his new team. He also has four forced fumbles to tie Jones for the NFL lead.
2. LB Jordan Hicks. Hicks is another Eastern important who has stepped right into a key role in Arizona's defense. An unrestricted free agent who battled some injury problems in four years in Philadelphia, Hicks starts at middle linebacker in the Cardinals' 3-4 front and is not only the Cardinals' leader but second in the NFL with 90 tackles. He can also rush the passer (four quarterback hits and 2.5 sacks) and cover pass-catchers (four passes defensed).
3. CB Byron Murphy. After taking Murray first overall in last April's draft, the Cardinals used the opening pick of the second round to grab Washington's Byron Murphy, just the second cornerback off the board at that point. Murphy is fourth on the team with 47 tackles and has broken up five passes. Arizona already has two members of its 2019 draft class in the starting lineup with Murray and Murphy, while third-round DE Zach Allen started the opener and fifth-round safety Deionte Thompson has opened two games.
1. RB Chase Edmonds. Though the Cardinals expect to get David Johnson back for Sunday's game, Edmonds will probably still be sidelined by his hamstring injury. Edmonds ran for three 20-yard touchdowns in Arizona's Week Six win over the Giants.
2. DE Zach Allen. The rookie started the Cardinals' Week one game against Detroit and had two quarterback hits but he's missed the last five games with a neck injury and may not be ready to return yet in Week 10.
3. WR Hakeem Butler. As productive as the Cardinals' rookie class has been, the team hasn't been able to get anything out of their fourth-round pick, Iowa State wide receiver Hakeem Butler. Butler suffered a hand injury in the preseason and because he was put on injured reserve before the roster cut to 53 players, he is not eligible to return from IR during the season.