The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New York Giants on Monday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff at MetLife Stadium. After a slightly longer week of preparation than usual, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
WR Mike Evans. Evans line of game-by-game yardage totals in 2020 is an odd one, especially for a player who has displayed so much consistency throughout his career. Evans has two 100-yard games already and he has scored in five of the Bucs' seven contests, but he also has five games with fewer than 50 yards, including three with 10 or fewer. Evans is clearly drawing frequent double-coverage and that has just as clearly created opportunities for his fellow pass-catchers. Still, both Head Coach Bruce Arians and quarterback Tom Brady expressly said this week that they very much want to get the ball into Evans' hands more often. That could be critical on Monday night as the team will be without Chris Godwin and newcomer Antonio Brown is not eligible to play until next week. One possibility to make it harder for the Giants to double-team Evans and potentially keep long-time foe James Bradberry from following him on every snap would be to give him some more snaps in the slot, another option that Arians mentioned this week. One way or another Evans looks like he may be primed for another one of those big games he posted earlier in the season.
OLB Shaquil Barrett. Barrett is another Buccaneer, on the other side of the ball, who is playing as well as ever but doesn't have the same stats to show for it as he did a year ago. After his NFL-leading 19.5-sack breakthrough in 2019, the Bucs' franchise-tagged player has just three sacks through the first seven games of 2020. However, Arians says on a near-weekly basis that Barrett is still applying a lot of pressure and getting very close to collecting more sacks. That was evident last week in Las Vegas when he hit Derek Carr, causing what was originally ruled to be a fumble before it was challenged and turned into an incompletion. It's also reflected in Next Gen Stats, which have shown Barrett to the Buccaneer pass-rusher with the lowest average separation in yards from the passer in three of the first seven games, including last week. Daniel Jones beat the Buccaneers in his first career start last September but he also absorbed five sacks, most of them by Barrett. Barrett finished the game with eight tackles, 4.0 sacks, three tackles for loss, four quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. That lattermost stat has been a problem for Jones in his young career. He is tied for the league lead this year with four fumbles lost (out of five total fumbles) and since the start of 2019 has the most fumbles (23) and fumbles lost (15) of any NFL player.
QB Tom Brady. Obviously, you're going to be watching the quarterback, which is why we don't often include Brady here. But this is Monday Night Football, and Brady is no stranger to that stage. His first MNF outing as a Buccaneer will also be the 25th of his career and he brings a 17-7 record as a starter into this one. Brady has already thrown 18 touchdown passes this season, second most in the NFL to Russell Wilson's 22, and if he gets one against the Giants it will be the 50th Monday Night Football scoring toss of his career. Brady is also playing an exciting brand of football, which is perfect for MNF's national audience. He's showing precision to all areas of the field but having particularly good success tossing it deep. According to Next Gen Stats, Brady has thrown a deep ball (more than 20 yards downfield in the air) on 14.4% of his passes, the highest average for him since Next Gen started tracking in 2016 and the fourth-highest average in the NFL this season. On go routes, like the perfect 33-yard touchdown pass he threw to Scotty Miller in the back corner of the end zone in Las Vegas, Brady has seven touchdowns and a passer rating of 137.0. And the speedy Miller hasn't been his only target on such plays; Brady has completed a pass on a go route to seven different Buccaneers.
CB Carlton Davis III. The deserved notoriety that has eluded Buccaneers linebacker Lavonte David has started to take hold as the presence of Tom Brady and Tampa Bay's winning ways in 2020 have brought more attention to some underappreciated players like David. The next Buccaneer who could be labeled a star with more attention – say, the Monday Night Football lights – is Carlton Davis, who has spent seven weeks backing up Bruce Arians' training camp claim that he is a top-five cornerback in the NFL. Last Sunday against the Raiders, who have the NFL's seventh-ranked passing attack, the players Davis covered were only targeted four times, resulting in one catch for three yards. On several occasions in the last calendar year, such as in Week One of 2020 against Michael Thomas, Davis has been asked to shadow the opposition's top receiver and has delivered a shutdown performance. The Buccaneers may ask him to attempt that against Darius Slayton, who has 21 more targets than any other wideout on the Giants' roster.
C Ryan Jensen. The Giants have invested a lot of resources in their interior defensive line and that is becoming the strength of the team's defense. Dalvin Tomlinson was a second-round pick in 2017 and is one of the more underrated nose tackles in the league. Dexter Lawrence cost a first-round pick in 2019. Last year the Giants sent third and fifth-round picks to the Jets for former sixth-overall pick Leonard Williams, then gave him the franchise tag in 2020. Those three players have combined for six of the Giants' 18 sacks and are the key to an eighth-ranked rush defense. Jensen will likely have to deal with all three at some point. The anchor of the Bucs' line, both physically and emotionally, Jensen has contributed to a very strong showing by that group, particularly of late. Brady has not been sacked in the last two games, and in three of the last four, and the Packers and Raiders only combined to hit him five times. Overall, Brady has been sacked just eight times in seven games and Football Outsiders ranks the Buccaneers' line as the best in the league in pass protection.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 100.0%/61.5%. The Buccaneers remain perfect in goal-to-go situations on offense. They have reached a first-and-goal 20 times through seven games and converted all 20 of those drives into touchdowns. That's the most goal-to-go drives with a 100% success rate to start a season for any NFL team since at least 2000. The Bucs will put that streak on the line on Monday night against a Giants defense that is tied for the third-best rate of stopping goal-to-go drives. They have allowed only 61.5% of those opportunities to be converted into touchdowns.
· 21.23. According to Next Gen Stats, that's the top speed, in terms of miles per hour, that Giants quarterback Daniel Jones hit on his 80-yard run against Philadelphia on Thursday night. Jones memorably tripped with no defenders in front of him to lose out on a touchdown on the play, but he still showed off his speed, which is a weapon the Buccaneers must respect. That's the fastest that Next Gen Stats have clocked any NFL quarterback at over the last three years, and Jones is the Giants' leading rusher with 296 yards.
· 10.00%/8.66%. Speaking of the speed Jones possesses, he may need it to get away from the Buccaneers' rabid pass-rushers. Tampa Bay has steadily improved to fourth in the NFL in sacks per pass play on defense, with a mark of 10.00%. Potentially compounding that problem is some shaky protection by the Giants' line, which has allowed a sack rate of 8.66%. That's the eighth-worst mark in the league.
· 30/23/23/23. Here are the top five players in the NFL in terms of passes defensed since the start of 2019: Carlton Davis (30), Joe Haden (23), James Bradberry (23), Jamel Dean (23) and Logan Ryan (23). Eagle-eyed readers may notice that four of those five players are set to play in Monday's game, as Davis and Dean are teammates in Tampa and both Bradberry and Logan signed with the Giants this year. Daniel Jones and Tom Brady should prepare to have some passes contested this week.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 8 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers will be without starting wide receiver Chris Godwin for the fourth time in eight games. After previously missing one game due to a concussion and two more with a hamstring strain, Godwin is out in Week Eight thanks to a fractured right index finger he incurred while making a touchdown catch in Las Vegas. Antonio Brown is not yet eligible to play so the Buccaneers will likely start Scotty Miller and give more snaps to rookie Tyler Johnson and third-year man Justin Watson.
· The most pressing lineup concern for Monday's game during the week involved the Giants' offensive line. Starting left guard Will Hernandez was placed on the reserve/COVID-19 list on Thursday after returning a positive test, and four of his linemates began quarantining at home. Those four included starting tackles Cam Fleming and Andrew Thomas. However, those players went back to work on Friday and are all expected to play. Shane Lemieux, who was one of those four, is listed as the Giants' top reserve at both guard spots and would likely step in for Hernandez.
· Giants RB Devonta Freeman did not practice at all this week after leaving the Giants' Week Seven Thursday night game with an ankle injury. Freeman was ruled out for Monday's game on Saturday, which means the Giants will likely lean on Wayne Gallman as their primary ballcarrier.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE GIANTS
The Giants recently got wide receiver Sterling Shepard back from offense and can field a quartet of speedy and shifty pass-catchers in Shepard, leading wideout Darius Slayton, productive slot receiver Golden Tate and athletic tight end Evan Engram. The Giants' defense is allowing only 3.7 yards per carry, which is fifth best in the NFL and has tackling machine Blake Martinez running around behind the aforementioned trio of strong down linemen. The New York defense also features a potential shut-down corner in James Bradberry, the former Panther. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Whether or not the Buccaneers use Carlton Davis to shadow Darius Slayton or keep their outside corners on their usual sides, the Bucs' secondary will need to be wary of the speedy receiver taking off deep. Against Washington in Week Six, Jones hit Slayton with a 23-yard touchdown pass on a go route, the third time Slayton has found the end zone this season to lead the Giants' offense. According to Next Gen Stats, Slayton has five touchdowns on go routes since he entered the league in 2019, which is the same number that Mike Evans has in that span. It's also just one off the NFL lead in that category in that time span. Slayton has topped 20 miles per hour on his routes four different times this season and he ran a 4.39 40-yard dash at the 2019 Scouting Combine. Slayton's go routes are a concern because Jones has improved his deep-ball accuracy considerably in his second season. Last year, Jones completed just 26.9% of his deep passes to rank 27th in the NFL. Through the first six weeks of this season, he had completed 60.0% of his deep balls, good for fourth in the league.
The notion of former Titans standout Logan Ryan signing with the Giants swirled around for months before it finally came to fruition in early September. Ryan had primarily been a slot corner for Tennessee though he moved all over the field in their defense. In the free agency process, Ryan made it clear that he viewed himself as a safety, and that is where he is listed now in the Giants' starting lineup. In reality, the plan was always to move Ryan all around the formation to create specific matchups, which Judge made clear when the signing was announced. And indeed that has happened. The Next Gen Stats heat chart showing Ryan's various pre-snap locations blankets most of the middle two-thirds of the field and extends from the line of scrimmage to 20 yards deep. Ryan's stats also indicate a player who is used in a variety of ways: 43 tackles (second on the team), one sack, three quarterback hits, five passes defensed and a forced fumble. When the Buccaneers are trying to create certain matchups of their own design on offense, they'll have to be cognizant of how the Giants are countering it with Ryan.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On if the Giants, who have been in a lot of close games under first-year Head Coach Joe Judge, are a better team than their 1-6 record would indicate:
"I don't think there's any doubt. Just think if they had Saquon [Barkley] in some of those games. But, yeah, they've been to the wire a number of times and either haven't gotten it done offensively or defensively. But they're knocking on the door. And in your first year as a head coach, that's pretty impressive."