The Buccaneers have punched their ticket to the postseason and will be traveling to Washington to take on the Football Team in the Wild Card round this Saturday night. Washington is coming into the game with a 7-9 record but has the league's second-ranked defense that will aim to stop the league's third-ranked scoring offense.
To see how that could play out, Scott Smith has you covered.
Not far behind Washington's defensive metrics sit the Buccaneers. Let's examine what the Bucs have done well this year on that side of the ball to further understand how they may match up with the NFC East division winners come primetime this weekend.
After inheriting the league's 27th-ranked defense at the start of 2019, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles has completely reimagined his unit and it's safe to say, brought hard-nosed, defensive football back to the Bay. The Bucs currently sit as the sixth-ranked defense, going off yards per game, allowing an average of just 327.1. In particular, the Bucs have the league's best rushing defense for the second year in a row, allowing just 80.6 yards a game this season.
It's thanks largely to one of the best front sevens in the league, with stout run defenders like defensive lineman Will Gholston and tackle-for-loss king Lavonte David. Since the start of the 2019 season, the Bucs have allowed the fewest yards per game on the ground with an average of 77.2 and the fewest yards per rush with opponents averaging just 3.43 yards per carry in the same span.
How does the Football Team fare on the ground, you ask? Statistically, not great. They rank 26th in rushing offense, averaging 100.7 yards per game. But there's more to it than just the numbers. As Bowles pointed out today, both running backs Antonio Gibson and J.D. McKissic used to be receivers, so they can create matchup issues that way. Gibson has 11 rushing touchdowns this season as a rookie. In fact, Head Coach Bruce Arians said that the Bucs almost drafted Gibson in the second round. They instead went with Antoine Winfield Jr. and I think it worked out for everyone in the end. Washington also has former Buccaneer Peyton Barber, who himself has four rushing touchdowns this season and he's played in all 16 games for the Football Team. You don't want to give quarterback Alex Smith a reliable ground game to work with, either. You want to put him under as much pressure as possible to do it on his own.
And speaking of pressure… stopping the run isn't the only thing the Bucs' defense does well.
They've also taken major strides in their pass rush this season, despite losing a key component in Vita Vea after he suffered a broken leg during Week Five. Consider that the Buccaneers have the second-most pressures on opposing quarterbacks per game in the league, averaging 10.9, behind only the Pittsburgh Steelers. Tampa Bay is second in quarterback hits this season with 116. And not only do they disrupt those signal callers, they full-on take them to the ground, too. The Bucs have tallied 48.0 sacks this year, which is tied for the fourth-most in the NFL.
Where the Bucs took a big step forward was generating pressure from the interior, as well as the bookends of Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett, who had a combined 17.5 sacks this season. Defensive lineman Ndamukong Suh had 6.0 sacks in 2020, his most since his first year with Miami in 2015. Even Gholston, who is known more for his ability to stuff the run matched his single-season career high.
On top of that, the Bucs have gotten pressure from multiple levels of the defense. Inside linebacker Devin White ended up with 9.0 sacks, the most of any inside linebacker in the NFL. Tampa Bay got 16.5 sacks and 29 quarterback hits this season from players not on the defensive line.
It means the pressure could come from anywhere, therefore putting stress and confusion on opposing offenses.
That will be the goal against Smith and the Washington Football Team. Smith, while undoubtedly the Comeback Player of the Year after leading his team to a 5-1 record following his return from a horrific leg injury, is predictably not a mobile kind of quarterback. He relies on a clean pocket to be effective. That's something Washington has struggled to give its quarterbacks this season. They have allowed 50.0 sacks this year, which is tied for 29th in the league.
All that pressure can force the quarterback into some precarious situations, too. Smith is cautious, as he should be, and won't hesitate to throw the ball away in order to avoid a hit. But if you can force him into an errant throw, that could create an opportunity for takeaways, which the Bucs have also consistently excelled at the past two years. The Bucs are tied for the fourth-most takeaways in the league since 2019 with 53. It's what has helped them to a top-ten ranking in points allowed, letting up an average of just 22.2 points per game.
Conversely, Washington isn't scoring that many points this season, relying heavily on their defense to shut down opposing teams rather than outscoring them. Washington is averaging 20.9 points per game, which ranks 25th. In total offense, they rank 30th.
What the Bucs will have to be weary of are playmakers like wide receiver Terry McLaurin and tight end Logan Thomas, who are having excellent seasons so far. McLaurin has 1,118 yards on 87 catches this year. Thomas leads the team with six receiving touchdowns. It's been a 'bend not break' kind of season for the Bucs' secondary but they should be returning their number one corner in Carlton Davis this week. Arians was optimistic about his availability on Monday after Davis missed the last two games with a groin injury.
But like Scott Smith's key to the Bucs' offensive success, the key to the Bucs' defensive success will likely hinge more on the trenches. If the Bucs can get pressure on Smith, while taking away any sort of run game, they have an excellent chance of advancing past the Wild Card round.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Wild Card Week practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.