The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New York Jets in Week 17 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, New Jersey. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jordan Whitehead. You could watch a highlight reel of the two games Whitehead has played since returning from a calf injury and be thoroughly entertained, or you could pay attention to him this Sunday because he will probably add another handful of "wow" plays. Whitehead's teammates credit him with bringing an infectious energy to the field on game day, and he certainly fires up those around him with his hard hits. He had an interception, three passes defensed and a team-high seven tackles in the win over Carolina and Pro Football Focus gave him the second-highest grade among all NFL safeties in Week 16. The Buccaneers have not allowed a touchdown in the two games since Whitehead's return and will try to do that three times in a row for the first time in a single season in team history. With fellow starting safety Antoine Winfield, Jr. out for the last two games with a foot injury and questionable again for Sunday's contest, Whitehead has stepped up as the big playmaker in the Bucs' secondary as the playoff stretch run has heated up.
Breshad Perriman. Perriman missed the last two games while on the COVID list but may be just about the surest thing the Bucs' passing game had going into their Week 17 game. Chris Godwin is on injured reserve, Jaelon Darden is on the COVID list and Mike Evans, Antonio Brown and Justin Watson are all questionable for the game due to injuries. Perriman has only played four games and 105 offensive snaps this season for the Bucs, but his most recent rep was a 58-yard game-winning catch-and-run in overtime against Buffalo in Week 14. He has the trust of Bruce Arians and coaching staff after his strong performance in his first go-around with the Bucs in 2019, which coincidentally earned him a new contract with the New York Jets in 2020. Perriman primarily operates on the outside and has the speed to get deep and the size to win over smaller defensive back. The Buccaneers need new offensive skill-position players to step up given their current injury list, and last week that was accomplished by Cyril Grayson and Ke'Shawn Vaughn. This week it could be Perriman who gets a much bigger chunk of the offense.
Joe Tryon-Shoyinka. There may be some mystery about the Buccaneers' receiving corps on Sunday but there is none surrounding the team's edge rushers: starting outside linebackers Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul are both out due to injuries. That means the Buccaneers need their 2021 first-round pick, which seemed like an attractive luxury in April, to step in a big way as the team nears the playoffs. Tryon-Shoyinka has 4.0 sacks and 10 quarterback hits in his rookie season and the coaching staff has consistently expressed satisfaction with his level of play. For much of the year, however, he has been the third-man in the edge rotation, spelling Barrett or Pierre-Paul at times or occasionally joining both of them in sub packages and rushing from the inside. The only three games in which Tryon-Shoyinka has played 50 or more snaps are the three that he has started in Pierre-Paul's absence, including last week. The Bucs' outside linebacker depth chart is currently down to Tryon-Shoyinka, Anthony Nelson and Cam Gill, so the rookie is likely to get his biggest dose of playing time yet this Sunday.
Ryan Jensen. The Buccaneers' efforts to get the running game going on Sunday, a likelihood given their missing pass-catchers, starts with an offensive line that is sending three players to the Pro Bowl, including Jensen. And, according to Football Outsiders, the Buccaneer rank third in adjusted line yards (4.83) when running the ball over the center and guards. Jensen sets the tone for that line with his very aggressive snap-to-whistle play and will surely be thrilled if the coaches choose to grind things out on the ground and let those blockers power forward on a majority of snaps. Jensen's emotional leadership could be important on Sunday in another way, too: With the NFC South title already clinched and a 4-11 opponent that doesn't inspire the same sort of enmity as some of the Bucs' more common foes, it could be easy for the Bucs to get complacent. Jensen – and of course Tom Brady – will make sure that doesn't happen.
Grant Stuard. The area in which the Jets are strongest in relation to the rest of the league is in their return game. Thanks to the Pro Bowl-caliber season that return man Braxton Berrios is having, the Jets rank first in the NFL in kickoff return average and second in punt return average. The Jets may not have beaten the Jaguars last weekend if they hadn't gotten a 102-yard kickoff return from Berrios, and if this Sunday's game is close, too, big plays on special teams could be the difference. Stuard will be a big part of the effort to make sure that isn't the Jets who get those big plays. The rookie seventh-rounder, who was the last player picked in the 2021 draft, has quickly emerged as the sort of impact player on special teams the Bucs hoped they had landed. He leads the team with 12 kick-coverage stop, which is more than any other two players on Tampa Bay's roster combined so far this season. Stuard has a true passion for the special teams phase of the game and is surely looking forward to the challenge of keeping Berrios in check.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 36.8%. The Buccaneers got 391 yards of offense in their Week 16 win at Carolina, nearly matching their 2021 per-game average of 401.7, but they finished with just 232 passing yards, their fourth-lowest single-game total this season. Moreover, only 85 of those yards were gained after the pass-catcher had the ball in his hands. That's 36.8% of the overall total, which marks the lowest percentage of passing yards that came after the catch for Tampa Bay's offense in any game in 2021. And that was with Antonio Brown, a talented runner after the catch, in the lineup. Brown is questionable for Sunday's game and YAC star Chris Godwin is done for the season. If the Buccaneers still want to run the type of offense they were relying on before the recent rash of injuries, which included a huge amount of success on short passes, they will need some other receivers and backs to step in that regard.
· 0-7. We're not drilling down very far for this "stat," which is really just a won-loss record. The Buccaneers may be double-digit favorites this weekend but they have never beaten the Jets in a road game. That seven-game losing streak on the Jets' turf dates back to Tampa Bay's inaugural 1976 season and most recently includes a last-second field goal loss at MetLife Stadium on opening day in 2013, with the fateful kick made possibly by a controversial personal foul called against Lavonte David. On the other hand, this is the first time the Buccaneers have played the Jets on the road and had Tom Brady as their quarterback. As a Patriots starter, Brady went 14-4 in road games against the Jets, and he need just three more passing yards on Sunday to pass Dan Marino (8,651) for the most by any quarterback against the Jets in their franchise history.
· 65,828. That is the official listed capacity of Raymond James Stadium, where the Buccaneers will start their 2021 playoff run as they try to capture a second straight Lombardi Trophy. They got the other one in a rare way, winning three straight road games in the postseason before becoming the first team ever to win a Super Bowl in its own home stadium. However, it's fair to say that the Louisiana Superdome and Lambeau Field would have presented significantly more daunting atmospheres for the visiting Bucs if the pandemic had not limited crowd size. The Buccaneers sought to win the NFC South this year so they would not have to try to duplicate that long road run last January, and have done so. But there's still another prize for the Bucs to chase, which keeps their final two games meaningful. Currently seeded fourth in the NFC but tied with the 11-4 Cowboys and Rams, the Bucs could still leap all the way up to the two seed with the right combination of results over the next fortnight, beginning with winning their own two remaining games. And that would make the above attendance figure even more important, because the second seed in the conference is guaranteed another home game in Round Two if it wins in Round Two.
· 64.52%/59.70%/53.19%/50.98%. In their 26-21 win over Jacksonville last Sunday, the Jets had to make a final goal-line stand after the Jaguars got a first-and-goal at the New York five with 32 seconds remaining. That eventually became a fourth-and-goal from the one and the Jets denied Trevor Lawrence's final pass attempt. That was a triumphant sequence for the Jets but it might not have been necessary if the New York offense had done better in its own forays into the red zone. The Jets took four possessions inside Jacksonville's 10-yard line but two of them ended in downs and only one produced a touchdown. The red zone on both sides of the ball looks like it will be an advantageous matchup for Tampa Bay this Sunday. The Buccaneers' offense rank third in red zone touchdown percentage (64.52%) while the Jets' defense is 19th (59.70%). When the Jets have the ball, their offense will feature the 27th-ranked red zone touchdown rate (53.19%) against a Bucs' defense that ranks seventh (50.98%).
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers ruled out both of their starting outside linebackers on Friday, as Jason Pierre-Paul is dealing with a shoulder injury and Shaquil Barrett is done for the regular season due to the knee sprained he suffered last week. Rookie Joe Tryon-Shoyinka stepped into the starting lineup last week in the absence of Pierre-Paul and now third-year man Anthony Nelson is likely to join him with Barrett also unavailable.
· The Jets are likely to be without their leading pass-catcher, as wide receiver Jamison Crowder was listed as doubtful on the Friday injury report due to a calf ailment. Crowder has a team-high 50 catches for 431 yards and two touchdowns, operating largely out of the slot. In addition, rookie wideout Elijah Moore remained on the Jets' COVID list heading into the weekend and big-ticket free agent acquisition Corey Davis is on season-ending injured reserve.
· Wide receivers Antonio Brown, Mike Evans and Justin Watson are all questionable for Sunday's game and wideout Chris Godwin is on injured reserve. The Buccaneers will be getting Breshad Perriman back in the mix after he spent a week on the COVID list, and they also elevated Cyril Grayson to the active roster again on Saturday.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE JETS
The Jets have struggled in most defensive categories in 2021 but do have a powerful duo of interior linemen in Quinnen Williams and Sheldon Rankins, who have combined for 9.0 sacks, helping the Jets rank 18th in sacks per pass play on defense. New York's offense, while inconsistent, does rank 20th in yards per play (20) and 14th in yards per carry (4.36) and has had some explosive performances, most notably in a 34-31 win over Cincinnati and a 27-24 win over Tennessee. And the Jets do present one of the bigger special teams challenges, as noted above, with Braxton Berrios leading to them to rankings of first and second, respectively, in kickoff and punt return average. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
As discussed earlier, the Buccaneers may try harder than usual to get their ground game going this Sunday given their missing pass-catchers, the Jets' 30th-ranked rush defense and the possibility of adverse weather at MetLife Stadium. To do so, they may have to be persistent, even if things don't start out perfectly. While the Jets are allowing 141.3 rushing yards per game they have actually been pretty good at stopping the run when geared up for it on first down. New York's opponents have run on first down 269 times, the most against any defense in the NFL this year. However, only 111 of them have been "successful" runs, meaning that they gained at least four yards. That success rate of 41.3% allowed by New York is the fifth-best mark in the league. For comparison purposes, the Buccaneers' vaunted run defense, which currently ranks third, has been only a little bit better on first down, allowing four-plus yards on 40.1% of the carries it has faced. With Williams and Rankins plugging gaps up front and C.J. Mosley making tackles all over the field, the Jets have the personnel to potentially make it tough on the Bucs' rushing attack.
Speaking of running, Jets quarterback Zach Wilson did that quite successfully himself last week, gaining 91 yards on four carries. That included a shocking 52-yard touchdown jaunt that is the longest rushing touchdown by a quarterback in Jets history. Tampa Bay's defense has faced quite a few mobile quarterbacks in 2021, and while Wilson may not present the same type of running threat as Jalen Hurts or Daniel Jones, the Bucs can't ignore the possibility that Wilson will take off and run if given an open lane. The rookie passer has rushed 25 times this year for 161 yards and four touchdowns, and 40% of his runs have resulted in a first down. Wilson will even fight for extra yards on some carries; he has a total of 59 yards after contact this season, so he's clearly not sliding down to avoid hits every time. Wilson has rushed for more than 20 yards in seven of his 11 starts this season, so it's highly likely that at some point he will take off with the ball. With Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul out for the game, young edge rushers Joe Tryon-Shoyinka and Anthony Nelson have to make sure they protect the edges while trying to get the quarterback on the ground.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM INTERIM HEAD COACH HAROLD GOODWIN
On how the Bucs' offense has prepared to face the Jets while missing some key contributors:
"They know it's a big game because we're trying to get to that magic number where we have that possibility of getting that second seed, so we have to win these two games. They know they have to play well. Obviously, we had some issues as far as skilled players going in and out as far as injuries and things of that nature. We just have to play to our level and play the way we're capable. Give Tom [Brady] a good pocket and when we run it, just make sure we give holes to the backs. The backs do a great job at running protection. We just have to give them an opportunity to do their job."