The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Washington Football Team on Saturday night in the Wild Card Round of the 2020 playoffs. Who has the upper hand when the Buccaneers' offense is on the field? Let's take a closer look.
Tampa Bay finished third in the league in scoring with 492 points and averaged 37 points per game during the four-game winning streak they took into the postseason. The Buccaneers also finished second in passing yards and second in touchdown passes and Tom Brady finished the season with a 102.0 passer rating. However, Washington counters with a defense that finished second in yards allowed, second in passing yards allowed and fourth in points allowed, while holding opponents to an 81.4 passer rating.
That's about as direct a strength-on-strength opposition as you can get, and it's a massive role reversal for a Tampa Bay franchise that built its previous playoff seasons off a swarming defense and won its first Super Bowl in a matchup of their top-ranked defense against the Raiders' top-ranked offense. But there are two more specific numbers that should drive home where the game will be won on Saturday night, and that is in the trenches. Those numbers are 3.51% and 8.88%
The first number is Tampa Bay's sacks-allowed-per-pass play percentage which is second best in the entire league Pittsburgh's 2.13%. Unfortunately, the second number is Washington's sack percentage on defense, which is fourth best in the league. Something will have to give, and for Brady's sake and the Bucs' hopes for a long playoff run, it had better not be Tampa Bay's offensive line.
Washington's relentless defensive front is a multi-year draft strategy gone right. Over the last four years, the Football Team has used a first-round pick on a defensive lineman in every draft. It started with Alabama's Jonathan Allen with the 17th pick in 2017 and then another Alabama big man, Da'Ron Payne, 13th overall the next year. Washington found a talented edge rusher at number 26 in Mississippi State's Montez Sweat in 2019, and then Ron Rivera arrived as the new head coach this year and put the cherry on the top of that massive sundae with Ohio State's Chase young with the second overall selection.
Those four young players are so talented that Ryan Kerrigan, the team's all-time sack leader, now comes in as a reserve…and has 5.5 sacks. All of that talent allows Washington rush just four and still get to the quarterback frequently. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Football Team came into the season finale with the seventh-highest pressure rate (26.2%) when only rushing four and then proceeded to get 11 pressures on 21 four-man rushes in its win over Philadelphia.
"They're an extremely well-coached team [with] a ton of talent in that defensive front," said Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians. "They're all first-round picks [in the front four]. They're legit, all the guys, the two kids from Alabama inside and then those two [outside] guys plus Ryan Kerrigan. That's as good a five as you're going to see anywhere, and they're young and very active and very athletic."
Young is the presumptive NFL Defensive Rookie of the Year and he finished his rookie campaign with 7.5 sacks, 10 tackles for loss, 12 QB hits, 20 pressures, four passes defensed, four forced fumbles and three fumble recoveries. After Washington won the NFC East on Sunday night, the talented rookie let it be known that he wanted a shot at Brady. He might have to win one very interesting battle of rookies to get to the Bucs' passer.
The Buccaneers drafted Iowa's Tristan Wirfs with the 13th pick, 11 spots after Young landed in Washington. The two former Big Ten stars now have a chance to go at it on the professional level after both had marvelous rookie campaigns. Wirfs did not allow a single sack in his last 11 games and only one all year, and according to his appreciative teammates he has played at a Pro Bowl level at right tackle all season without missing a single snap. Young's pre-snap location heat map from Next Gen Stats shows that he lines up more frequently over the left tackle but has seen plenty of time over the right tackle as well.
Wirfs and his fellow linemen are up to the challenge. The group is healthy, with standout left guard well past his concussion and left tackle Donovan Smith recovered from an ankle injury. That group has only allowed Brady to be sacked more than once in six of the last seven games. In the win over Atlanta on Sunday, Brady was only pressured at all on eight of his 44 drop-backs, and only twice did a Falcon actually make contact.
If Brady is given the type of protection he's become used to, he certainly will be taking a hot hand into the Wild Card game. Since coming back from the team's Week 13 bye, Brady has compiled a 126.9 passer rating, with 12 touchdown passes and just one interception coming in Week 17 on a fluky deflection play. He is using his deep cast of weapons to get the ball downfield in a wide variety of ways. In that same four week span, according to ESPN, Brady is 13 of 25 for 452 yards and six touchdowns on balls thrown more than 20 yards downfield in the air, the best such numbers for any quarterback in the league.
The Buccaneers passing attack will be better, obviously, if leading receiver Mike Evans is able to return from his scary knee injury in time to suit up against Washington. Evans would be a good matchup for cornerback Kendall Fuller, who has had a very strong season for the Football Team. According to Next Gen Stats, Fuller went into Week 17 ranked eighth among all NFL corners in passer rating allowed and ninth in average separation from the players he has covered. However, Evans doesn't need a lot of separation to put up big numbers as he is excellent in traffic, on contested passes and on jump balls.
Meanwhile, Chris Godwin is hitting his stride as the playoffs arrive and Antonio Brown, a midseason addition, has looked more comfortable every week. Those two combined for 271 yards and four touchdowns in the season finale, most of it after Evans went down with his injury. With Scotty Miller, Tyler Johnson and tight ends Rob Gronkowski and Cam Brate all in the mix, the Buccaneers can and do attack opposing defenses with an incredible amount of variety.
The Buccaneers have 11 touchdown passes of 20 or more yards in their last five games and they made need some of those long-distance scores because the battle between the two fronts is only going to intensify when and if Tampa Bay gets into the red zone. The Bucs rank seventh in the NFL in red zone touchdown efficiency (68.9%) and fifth in goal-to-go touchdown efficiency (83.7%). However, Washington's defense is fourth (53.5%) and second (65.0%) in those two categories, respectively.
The Buccaneers' offense is red hot going into the postseason and would be a challenge for any NFL defense. Washington may have made it into the field with a sub-.500 record as the East champs but it definitely has a playoff-caliber defense. That could be one of the best matchups in the entire Super Wild Card weekend, but the victor is almost certainly going to be the team that wins in the trenches.