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Bucs Face Potential NFL MVP in Week Eight Trip to Seattle

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers make one last swing on their unusual six-week, five-game road trip, and it's another long one as they head to the opposite corner of the country to take on the Seattle Seahawks in Week Nine. Tampa Bay is trying to snap a three-game losing streak that technically included a "home game" in London, a run that has put them on the very fringes of the playoff race. However, with nine weeks still to go, the Buccaneers hope to kick off a massive run with a quality road win over a talented 5-2 Seahawks squad.

The Bucs will also try to rebound from a heartbreaking loss in Nashville in which a couple turnovers, some red zone missteps and one inadvertent whistle undermined what in many ways was a winning effort. If another game comes down to the wire in Seattle, the Buccaneers will face a challenge to be the team that makes the winning plays at the end because the Seahawks have been very good in close games this year. They already have four wins by four or fewer points, including two one-point decisions. And while Tampa Bay's last three games have come against teams on their second quarterback of the season, the Seahawks are still led by MVP candidate Russell Wilson, who may be having his best season yet.

Even though Seattle has the NFL's passer-rating leader in Wilson, the Seahawks love to run the ball, ranking fourth in the NFL in percentage of rushing plays (48.3), with the rugged Chris Carson leading the way. That said, Wilson is always ready to step in and take over, with both his arm and his legs, when the Seahawks need him to. Much of the cast has changed around Wilson on both sides of the ball since the team's victory in Super Bowl XLVIII (and loss in the next Super Bowl, as well), and the Seattle defense isn't quite as dominant as in those years, but the Seahawks are still prime contenders thanks in large part to their quarterback. The Seahawks' defense also still has its quarterback in linebacker Bobby Wagner, who is working on a five-year Pro Bowl streak and was chosen first-team All-Pro in each of the last three seasons. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will confront against the Seahawks in Seattle on Sunday:

SEAHAWKS DIFFERENCE-MAKERS

While Seattle's offense has recently lost two important starters in tight end Will Dissly and center Justin Britt (more on that below), the defense has regained an important player in defensive tackle Jarran Reed, who was suspended for the first six games of the season. Reed had a 10.5-sack breakout season in 2018. The Seahawks also recently swung a deal for Lions safety Quandre Diggs, but Diggs is a question mark to play in this Sunday's game. Here are four specific Titans who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:

1. QB Russell Wilson. As we've noted before, the opposition's quarterback could reasonably be included among the difference-makers every week given the importance of their performance, good and bad, on every outcome. It's only when faced with a special talent like Wilson that we make a point of putting the quarterback on this list, and there aren't many teams in the NFL that would suffer more greatly if they lost their starting passer. That's not specifically a knock on backup Geno Smith, but more an indication of how important Wilson is to his team, both as a leader and a playmaker. As noted above, Wilson leads the NFL with a 115.5 passer rating, one he has achieved through extremely consistent play, as he has topped 100 in seven of his eight outings, with four of those at 130 or better. Wilson leads the league in touchdown passes with 17 but is also tied with Patrick Mahomes for the fewest interceptions thrown, with three. He's completing 68.4% of his passes and is arguably even more dangerous when a play breaks down and he gets out of the pocket. Oh, and by the way, he's also run for 182 yards and three touchdowns.

2. LB Bobby Wagner. If anybody in the NFL can challenge Carolina's Luke Kuechly for the title of best true middle linebacker in the league, it's Wagner, who is once again at the heart of the Seattle's defense as he fills up his stat line from left to right. Wagner is first on the team and third on the NFL with 75 tackles while adding 1.0 sack, four tackles for loss, two quarterback hits, two passes defensed, one forced fumble and one fumble recovery. The eighth-year veteran isn't just physically gifted, he's also extremely smart and obsessed with being the best, season after season. Those three straight first-team All-Pro and Pro Bowl selections? The only other player who can make the same claim is Rams superstar Aaron Donald, the two-time reigning NFL Defensive Player of the Year.

3. RB Chris Carson. The 5-11, 222-pound Carson is a big and violent runner who is very solidly built but still fluid in his motions. He may not be the NFL's most elusive runner but he can barrel through tacklers and has a career average of 4.4 yards per carry. Carson emerged from a crowd last year to become the Seahawks' top ballcarrier and finished with 1,151 yards on the ground. This year, he's almost exactly matching his per-game rushing yardage average from that breakout campaign (up to 82.4 from 82.2 in 2018) and now he's becoming a more important part of the Seahawks' passing attack. While Carson had all of 20 catches in 14 games last year, he already has 22 in eight contests this year and has two of his five total touchdowns through the air. Carson is getting nearly 23 touches per game so far and has clearly become the focal point of the attack so ably directed by Wilson.

4. DE Jadeveon Clowney. Clowney was the first-overall pick in the draft by Houston in 2014 after absolutely dominating on the collegiate level at South Carolina. His first two seasons were slowed by injuries but he has made the Pro Bowl each of the last three years with a total of 24.5 sacks in that span. Sacks don't tell the whole story for Clowney, who has 74 quarterback hits and 68 tackles for loss in 70 career games. Freakishly athletic and possessed of an 83-inch wingspan that he uses to keep opposing blockers off his body, Clowney is one of those rare defensive players who can take over a game when he's operating in high gear.

STRENGTHS

With Wilson performing as described above and also complemented by a good rushing attack, the Seahawks have moved the ball well, ranking ninth in the league with 382.9 yards of offense per game, including 130.0 on the ground (also ninth). Seattle also has the second-best red zone touchdown rate in the NFL. That has also been an area of strength for the Seahawks' defense, which ranks seventh in the red zone, allowing only 48.28% of drives to reach the end zone. Here are some more specific areas in which the Seahawks have excelled through the first eight weeks of the season:

·    One of the reasons that Wilson and the Seahawks have been so productive inside the 20 (67.74% touchdown rate) is that they have been extremely protective of the football. Seattle is one of eight teams that has yet to commit a single red zone turnover, and among those eight teams they've had the most red zone opportunities, with 31. Four of those other seven teams have fumbled in that territory but have managed to recover the loose balls; Seattle has not put it on the ground once.

·    Seattle's rush defense has been middle of the pack, allowing 103.1 yard per game to rank 16th, and on a per-carry basis it's worse, ranking 29th by allowing 4.85 yards per tote. However, the Seahawks have been substantially better against the run on first down carries, specifically. On that down, opponents are only averaging 3.83 yards per carry, which is ninth-best in the NFL. Last Sunday, the Buccaneers tried to establish the run game early, handing off on seven of their first eight first-down plays (not including play erased by penalty). That may be tough to do against the Seahawks.

·    The Buccaneers' defense will need to be on its toes on Sunday if the Seahawks get the football with less than two minutes remaining in either half, because Wilson and company have done a good job of mounting two-minute drives. Seattle's had nine such opportunities so far, which is only tied for the 19th most, but they've scored 19 points on those drives, which is second in the entire NFL. Wilson is the only quarterback who has already thrown touchdown passes to complete three different two-minute drills.

·    The Seattle defense has forced 15 turnovers, which is the fifth-highest total in the NFL. They've gotten contributions from a lot of defenders in getting those takeaways, as six different players have already logged interceptions and six different players have already forced at least one fumble.

WEAKNESSES

The Seahawks are giving up 376.4 yards and 24.5 points per game to rank 23rd and 20th in those two categories, respectively. The defense has yet to generate a particularly productive pass rush, ranking fourth-to-last with a sacks-per-pass-play rate of 4.30%. The Seattle offense is in the top half of the league rankings in most categories but is just 19th with a 7.60% sacks-per-pass play rate. In addition:

·    Opposing offenses have been able to run well behind the left side of their offensive lines and around that end. On 12 runs deemed to be over left guard, the Seahawks have allowed 8.58 yards per carry. On 26 carries considered to be over left tackle, they've allowed 6.27 yards per carry. And on 21 totes around left end, they've allowed 6.14 yards per carry. All three of those averages rank 25th or worse in the NFL.

·    Prior to 2019, Seahawks WR Tyler Lockett had averaged 7.7 yards per punt return, and in 2017 he led the NFL with 949 kickoff return yards. Lockett also had three kick return touchdowns in those five years. But Seattle's special teams unit have not been able to get Lockett going yet this year. He's averaging just 3.1 yards per punt return and as a team the Seahawks rank second-to-last in that category. Lockett's longest punt return so far this year is 10 yards and his longest kickoff return is 33 yards.

·    Seattle's secondary, which no longer features Richard Sherman, Earl Thomas or Kam Chancellor, might be susceptible to the deep ball this Sunday. Seattle's defense has faced 21 passes this year that were thrown more than 20 yards downfield in the air, and while only nine have been completed those completions have averaged 37.2 yards and resulted in two touchdowns. None of those deep balls have been intercepted and the Seahawks are giving up a 121.6 passer rating on such passes, third-worst in the NFL.

·    As good and as efficient as Seattle's offense has been this year, it has had to overcome a high number of negative plays. The Seahawks have had 28 runs and five completions result in negative yardage, and that total added to their 17 sacks allowed results in a total of 50 negative plays, which is the fourth-highest in the NFL.

NEW FACES IN 2019

The Seahawks have gradually overhauled most of their defense since the peak Legion of Boom days, including that entire secondary, but still have star linebacker Bobby Wagner in the middle of it. That defense got a new star on the eve of the regular season, however, when Seattle traded for the aforementioned Clowney. And of course, Wilson remains the leader on offense but he has an intriguing new target in the passing game as well as a new left guard. Here are some of Seattle's key additions in 2019:

1. G Mike Iupati. In their ongoing efforts to build a reliable offensive line in front of Wilson, the Seahawks turned to a veteran who has spent his entire career in the NFC West. Iupati, the former 49er and Cardinal, became an unrestricted free agent last March and moved on to his third West team, where he has stepped in as the starting left guard.

2. WR D.K. Metcalf. The fast and fabulously-built Ole Miss receiver fell farther than expected in this year's draft but has proved to be a steal so far for the Seahawks, who got him with the 64th overall selection. Metcalf already has 402 receiving yards and four touchdowns, including two in last week's win over Atlanta, and he's providing the big plays as anticipated with a 17.5-yard per-catch average.

3. K Jason Myers. Myers went 33-for-36 in field goal tries for the Jets last year, including six of seven from 50 and beyond, and made the Pro Bowl but New York didn't try to re-sign him before he hit free agency. That allowed the Seahawks to swoop in to replace their aging stopgap of 2018, Sebastian Janikowski. So far Myers is 10 of 13 on field goals and 22 of 23 on extra points as a Seahawk.

ABSENCES/POTENTIAL ABSENCES

1. C Justin Britt. The Seahawks lost Britt, who had started all eight games at center this year and has 86 starts in his six-year career, to a torn ACL that will require season-ending surgery. Joey Hunt, who has three career starts, is the listed backup at center on the Seahawks depth chart, though a roster move to shore up the line seems likely.

2. S Quandre Diggs. The Seahawks got Diggs in a trade with Detroit on October 23 but knew he had been dealing with a hamstring injury. He didn't play in his first game with the Seahawks due to that injury and while he's expected to practice more this week Head Coach Pete Carroll said on Tuesday that he was not sure Diggs would be ready to go by this Sunday's game.

3. TE Will Dissly. A fourth-round pick in 2018, Dissly had just eight catches as a rookie but was in the midst of a breakout season in 2019 before he suffered an Achilles tendon injury in Week Six against Cleveland. He has since been placed on injured reserve and has been replaced in the starting lineup by Luke Willson, who returned to his original team on September 25 after not making the Raiders' roster out of training camp.

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