The 6-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-6 Seattle Seahawks on Sunday at Qualcomm Stadium in a matchup of two teams that have each won four of their last six games. The Buccaneers are riding a three-game winning streak that has them one game out of the NFC South lead a half-game behind the second NFC Wild Card spot. In a very tough AFC West division, the Chargers are currently in fourth place but are still alive in the AFC postseason hunt.
Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter knows that winning streak has boosted his team's confidence but wants to make sure that remains a positive factor entering the season's final five weeks. The players' effort on the practice field suggests they're not taking anything for granted against a very strong Chargers squad.
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"Our guys had good energy, which we should have right now," said Koetter of the week of practice. "We're coming off a real high last week in that Seattle game. How it translates into today's game remains to be seen, because I think there's a danger in us thinking that we've arrived. The San Diego Chargers are an excellent football team. We're not a team that should be thinking we're just going to show up and play. We've had to put in preparation and it's going to take everything we have today.
Here are some additional notes regarding Sunday's Bucs-Seahawks matchup:
Last Sunday, the Buccaneers forced a Seattle offense that had committed six turnovers all season into three giveaways. Since Week Five, Tampa Bay's defense has secured an NFL-best 18 takeaways. That has been the single biggest factor in the team following a 1-3 start with a run of five wins in the last seven contests.
In Week 13, Tampa Bay will take on a San Diego offense that has committed a league-high 23 turnovers. That would appear to be a vulnerability of which the Bucs could take advantage, but they know securing takeaways has more to do with their own growing comfort in Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith's system.
"When we weren't getting any [turnovers] we were telling the players that they come in bunches," said Koetter. "And they have been coming, but there's no magic to it. It's the players having confidence in what they're doing and playing fast, knowing their assignments and trusting their instincts. These guys, they're the best players in the world and when they play to their instincts they always play better."
Additional Lineup and Inactive Notes
The Buccaneers lost one defensive starter to injury late in last week's win over Seattle, as safety Chris Conte will be unable to play on Sunday due to a chest ailment. However, defensive tackle Gerald McCoy, who also missed time near the end of that Seahawks contest, has been cleared to play after spending most of the week resting a foot injury.
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Fifth-year veteran Keith Tandy will step in to replace Conte, as he did during the final two games of last season. In those two starts, Tandy racked up 21 tackles, two tackles for loss, a sack and a quarterback hit.
"Chris has played big for us and we're certainly going to miss him, but the guys that are filling in, they've got to stand up and make plays today," said Koetter.
Conte is one of the Buccaneers' seven inactive players for the game, along with QB Ryan Griffin, G Josh Allen, C Evan Smith, T Leonard Wester, DT John Hughes and DL DaVonte Lambert. Like Conte, Smith is out due to injury.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers returns to action after missing four games with a foot injury. He piled up 324 rushing yards in three starts while starter Doug Martin was out, and now the Buccaneers have both Martin and Rodgers active for the first time since Week Two.
Two defensive starters continue to be out for the Chargers, as rookie inside linebacker Jatavis Brown and cornerback Brandon Flowers will miss their fourth and third consecutive games, respectively. Korey Toomer starts for Brown and Craig Mager steps in for Flowers. In addition to Brown and Flowers, San Diego has deactivated RB Ronnie Hillman, TE Asante Cleveland, C Max Tuerk, T Tyreek Burwell and WR Geremy Davis.
Keep An Eye On
Last week, Buccaneers wide receiver Mike Evans was challenged by Seahawks cornerback Richard Sherman, the NFL's leading interceptor since 2010. Evans still managed to produce, catching eight passes for 104 yards and both of the Buccaneers touchdowns.
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This week, Evans runs into the NFL's leading interceptor in 2016, San Diego cornerback Casey Hayward. While the Chargers may not dedicate Hayward to Evans as thoroughly as the Seahawks did with Sherman, it is still another significant task for the Buccaneers' rising star. Given how well Evans has handled himself against a variety of challenges this season, Koetter is confident that the team's number-one receiver can continue to produce.
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving on Friday for their game against the Chargers.
"Probably what has impressed me the most is the fact that Mike has kept him emotions under control," said the coach. "A lot of times when a guys getting doubled a lot, they can get frustrated. I think the old Mike Evans had a tendency to get frustrated at times. I'm very proud of the way Mike's handled himself. He's fought through double teams, he's fought through whether he agreed with all of the calls or not, if he's getting held, getting bumped around. He's just continued to play and play hard. He's done a really good job of that."
Earlier this week, McCoy referred to San Diego quarterback Philip Rivers as a future Hall of Famer. Given that Rivers ranks eighth in NFL history in both passer rating and touchdown passes, it was far from an outrageous claim. Koetter believes Rivers doesn't get the credit he deserves as one of the league's most dangerous passers every year, and that's particularly true at Qualcomm Stadium.
"I think Philip Rivers is 61-32 as a starter at his home field," said Koetter. "That shows you right there: They're going to be tough. It's going to be a tough game."
The Buccaneers' defense dropped Seattle quarterback Russell Wilson a season-high six times and, since Week Seven, is third in the NFL with 18 overall sacks. San Diego passer Philip Rivers has been sacked 26 times this season but is a quick decision-maker and underrated in his ability to move around in the pocket. Tampa Bay's defensive front has been far more effective in recent weeks with the return to health of several key players, but it may be the secondary that determines if the Bucs can pressure Rivers as well as they did Wilson.
"The challenge for the pass rush is getting their before he gets rid of it. Number one, they have a timing passing game. Number two, he's been around a long time and he knows when the ball has to come out. He's got great anticipation. It's going to be tough. The main way we're going to be able to get to him is if our coverage makes him hold the ball just a half-second longer."
The Buccaneers take on the Chargers on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 4:25 p.m. ET at Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego. The game will be broadcast regionally by FOX and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.