The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Carolina Panthers on Sunday in London, and we're counting down the hours to the 9:30 a.m. kickoff at Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. After a week of preparation, and a bit more travel than usual, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jordan Whitehead. Whitehead had an all-around impactful game in the Bucs' first meeting with the Panthers this season, collecting six tackles while breaking up a pass and making a key fourth-down open-field stop on Cam Newton. Whitehead was also in coverage on Greg Olsen on a number of snaps, and while he came very close to making several plays on passes thrown Olsen's way, the veteran tight end eventually emerged as the Panthers' leading receiver. Whitehead will surely have more opportunities to battle with Olsen in Week Six and perhaps turn the tide in that battle in the Bucs' favor. Perhaps the most important task for the young safety against Carolina, however, will be helping with the full-team effort necessary to slow down Christian McCaffrey, the most explosive player in football this season. Whitehead made the stop on three of McCaffrey's 18 touches in Week Two, helping limit the back to 53 yards from scrimmage.
Earl Watford. The Buccaneers signed this seventh-year veteran in the offseason as an unrestricted free agent on the basis of his versatility and his experience in Bruce Arians' offense in Arizona. As it turns out, the first place they need him is at right guard, with second-year starter Alex Cappa out with an arm fracture. The Buccaneers' rushing game has been relatively productive in 2019, if minimized a bit in recent weeks due to game situations, and the offense prefers to run its backs up the gut behind the strong blocking of interior players like Ali Marpet and Ryan Jensen. Now Watford joins that group and will try to help keep the running game in a functional gear. Watford and company also will need to provide Jameis Winston with better protection than he had last Sunday in the Superdome.
Shaquil Barrett. Barrett was named NFC Defensive Player of the Week after the Bucs' last meeting with the Panthers, thanks to his three-sack performance, and that was part of a scintillating September that also won him Player of the Month honors. Barrett was shut out in the sack department for the first time in Week Five as the Saints became the first opponent to focus on stopping him with a variety of chips and double teams. Barrett won quite a few one-on-one battles with the Panthers' left tackle in Week Two, Darryl Williams, but Williams has since moved inside to replace injured right guard Trai Turner. If Turner is still out on Sunday and Williams remains in his spot, it will mean a second straight start at left tackle for sixth-round rookie Dennis Daley. Daley had a very promising debut in the Panthers win over Jacksonville last Sunday but might find the going a little tougher if he spends the day matched up with Barrett.
Ronald Jones II. The first Bucs-Panthers matchup was the only game so far this year in which Peyton Barber led the team in rushing instead of Jones. Not only did Barber have a nice game against Carolina, with 82 yards and a touchdown, but Jones took himself out of the game plan by aggravating a toe injury he was dealing with at the time. Jones is no longer on the injury report and he's been providing the team with a big-play spark, although two long runs worth 78 yards were called back on penalties in Los Angeles in Week Four. Jones is running with authority, making quick cuts after getting through the initial seam into the second level and averaging 4.6 yards per carry. Jones also catches the occasional pass, and to good effect, with an average of 18.4 yards on his five grabs. He will be an addition to the offensive firepower the Bucs had available the last time they played the Panthers.
Devin White. Arians noted on Wednesday that veteran linebacker Kevin Minter had played very well in White's place but that the rookie, who was drafted fifth overall, is a "special" player. White barely got to play in Carolina in Week Two before going down, and he's surely itching to get back on the field. He had two tackles on McCaffrey in the very short amount of time he was in the game in Week Two. White is the kind of defender the Buccaneers need on the field when facing an offensive weapon like McCaffrey, a linebacker with the speed and range to make plays all over the field and have an impact in the passing game.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 10.84%/10.81%. Those nearly identical percentages are two sides of the same coin, one the Bucs hope can land on its edge this week. The first figure is Tampa Bay's sacks-allowed-per-pass-play figure, and it is the fifth-worst in the NFL through five weeks. That figure took a big hit with the six-sack game in New Orleans last week, and the Bucs' O-Line has had some good outings this year, but now it must work two new starters in on the right side of the line. That challenge is doubled by Carolina's sacks-per-pass-play figure on defense, which is the second number above, and it ranks third in the NFL. Pressure on the quarterback was the biggest factor in the Bucs' offensive downturn last week in New Orleans and the Bucs must avoid a repeat in Week Six.
· 6.00/2.89. The Panthers, as always, have a robust rushing attack, currently led by MVP-candidate Christian McCaffrey. Carolina ranks first in yards per carry and fourth in rushing yards per game, and if you break down their 128 rushing plays by the direction of the run, they've been particularly good straight up the gut. On run plays deemed to be "up the middle," the Panthers are averaging 6.00 yards per carry. That's also where they've run it most often, on 54 of their carries overall. However, Tampa Bay's defense, which is the only one so far this season to have any success slowing down McCaffrey, is only allowing 2.89 yards on carries directly up the middle. Feels like an unstoppable force-meets-immovable object situation – something has to give.
· 10/0. As NFL coaches are often quick to point out, the majority of games comes down to the last five minutes, and sometimes your team's offense needs to put together a successful two-minute drill to turn a loss into a win (or a halftime deficit into a lead). The Buccaneers have had some success in this regard; they've launched seven drives that would be considered "two-minute" drills at the end of either half through five games, and they've netted one touchdown, one field goal and one other field goal attempt that missed (at the end of the Week Three game against the Giants). Those 10 points may not seem by much, but if the Bucs had made that field goal against New York they would be just one off the league lead of 14 points in two-minute drills by Cincinnati. Meanwhile, Carolina's defense has faced eight possessions that fall into this category and have yet to allow any of them to lead to points.
· 52/21. Tampa Bay's defense has produced 10 takeaways through five games, and the Bucs' offense has made the most of them. The Buccaneers lead the NFL with 52 points off turnovers, a category that includes fumbles and interceptions returned for touchdowns as well as field goals and touchdowns earned on the possessions that follow a non-scoring takeaway. The Bucs' defense has scored twice on its own but the offense has done its part as well. In fact, Tampa Bay's last five takeaways have all resulted in touchdowns, four scored by the offense. Meanwhile, Carolina's defense has allowed 21 points on drives following turnovers, which is tied for 21st-best in the NFL.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 6 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· As noted above, the Bucs will have a new right side to their offensive line with both Cappa and tackle Demar Dotson (hamstring strain) currently sidelined. Sixth-year veteran Josh Wells will take over for Dotson, making his first start as a Buccaneer and the 10th of his career, all in the last three seasons. Watford will also be making his first start as a Buc but he opened 22 games while playing for Arians in Arizona.
· Rookie LB Devin White is expected to return to the starting lineup after missing most of the last four games. He suffered a knee injury just six plays into the Bucs' last game against Carolina, and though he returned to active status in Week Five he did not get into the game.
· White's fellow 2019 draft pick, Jamel Dean, is also expected to play for the first time since suffering in ankle injury in that same Week Two contest. The Bucs shook up their secondary lineup a bit last week, with Sean Murphy-Bunting taking over as the primary slot cornerback. It's possible the team will find a role for Dean, who is big and fast, as they continue to look for solutions to their pass-defense struggles.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE PANTHERS
McCaffrey is clearly the number-one challenge for any defense facing the Panthers, particularly with Newton sidelined. The Buccaneers met that challenge in spectacular fashion in Week Two but know it won't be easy to do it a second time against the red-hot running back. Since we highlighted McCaffrey in Week Two, here are two other challenges of note for the Buccaneers on Sunday.
The Panthers drafted Curtis Samuel in the second round in 2017, with their next pick after nabbing McCaffrey high in the first round, and that pair of picks seemed to represent a shift in the team's offensive strategy. Both McCaffrey and Samuels were considered very versatile players who could be utilized heavily in both the air and ground games. Samuels, in fact, had served as a sort of hybrid running back/receiver at Ohio State. However, while McCaffrey hit the ground running as a rookie, Samuel took a while to hone his game as an NFL receiver and then had some injury and health situations slow him down in both 2017 and 2018. All that was behind him as Samuel prepared for his third season, and the team raved about how much more of an offensive threat they expected him to be in 2019. So far, that's bearing out, as the small (5-11, 195) but speedy Samuel is third on the team with 19 receptions for 227 yards and a touchdown while also carrying the ball four times for 28 yards. Samuel picked up 91 yards on just five catches against the Buccaneers in Week Two, including a 44-yarder that was the Panthers' longest play of the season to that point. The Bucs are sure to be paying a lot of attention to McCaffrey on Sunday, which should provide some open-field opportunities for his 2017 draft mate.
The Panthers have the NFL's fourth-ranked pass defense, meanwhile, and that's clearly been driven by a pass-rush that has produced 20 sacks, second-most in the NFL, as noted above. But the Panthers also have talented players in the secondary, led by fourth-year cornerback James Bradberry. Mike Evans got past Bradberry for a key 41-yard catch that set up a Bucs touchdown in Week Two but otherwise had just three catches for 20 yards. The Panthers tend to isolate Bradberry on Evans, though like most teams they try to help the corner with added coverage against the Bucs' number-one receiver. Chris Godwin took advantage of that coverage in Week Two to catch eight passes for 121 yards and a touchdown. Given how productive Godwin has been on a near-weekly basis this season, the Panthers could choose to give him more focus in their coverage schemes, all of which could lead to some rather intriguing one-on-one battles between Bradberry and Evans.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the Panthers' offense without Cam newton and the challenge of stopping Christian McCaffrey a second time:
"[They are] a little different than when we played them last time, obviously, offensively with Kyle Allen. McCaffrey has been lights-out the past few weeks. If there's one thing I feel that we've done well, it's identify one person and take them out of the game. That'll be easier said than done this time. They're using him a whole lot more like [Alvin] Kamara in the passing game and stuff now."