The Tampa Bay Buccaneers went into their bye week with a 2-4 record and a third-place spot in the NFC South. There are 12 teams ahead of the Buccaneers in the overall conference standings, but the majority of the season still lies ahead. Despite taking a two-game losing skid into the bye, the Buccaneers are still eyeing a playoff run.
When the Buccaneers come out of their midseason break they will have 10 games remaining, against nine different opponents. They will likely need to win at least seven of those games to have a shot at the playoffs. Now that a third of the season has been played and teams around the league have revealed some of their strengths and weaknesses, let's take a look at how Tampa Bay matches up with each of its upcoming opponents, continuing with the Arizona Cardinals in Week Eight.
Opponent: Arizona Cardinals
Date, Location: Week 10, November 10, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Top Offensive Performer: QB Kyler Murray…1,664 passing yards (9th in the NFL), 7 touchdowns, 4 interceptions, 238 rushing yards (2nd among QBs in NFL) and two touchdowns
Top Defensive Performer: OLB Chandler Jones…15 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 5 quarterback hits, 3 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries, 2 passes defensed
Notable Strength: The Cardinals have a balanced offense that runs the ball well and can hit the big play in the passing game…mirroring the strengths of their rookie quarterback, Kyler Murray. Even with David Johnson having relatively low totals on the ground so far (49.7 yards per game and 3.9 yards per carry), the Cardinals still have the league's 12th-best rushing attack and they rank fifth in yards per carry. Murray's contributions help, as he is averaging about 40 rushing yards per game and 6.1 yards per carry. Meanwhile, Murray's 24 completions of 21 or more yards has the Cardinals ranked third in the league in that category. Adding to that balance is good ball security – Arizona's four turnovers ties for the fewest in the NFL.
Notable Weakness: The Cardinals have won their last two games after a 0-3-1 start and Murray has begun to heat up, but their latest victory was a tenuous 34-33 decision over the Falcons only secured when Matt Bryant missed what would have been the game-tying extra point. The Cardinals have allowed every opponent to score at least 23 points so far, and four of the six have scored at least 27. Arizona's defense is giving up 414.0 yards per game, including 281.2 through the air, and it has yet to intercept a pass. Opposing offense are picking up nearly seven yards a play on first down, which is the worst mark in the NFL.
How the Bucs Match Up:
On paper, this looks like the makings of a shootout. Tampa Bay's passing attack has shown it can move the ball against just about any team as long as it isn't hurting itself with turnovers. So far, the Cardinals' defense has not shown a propensity for creating turnovers, though it has racked up 21 sacks while ranking sixth in the league in sacks per pass play. This could be a problem for the Buccaneers, who have allowed 25 sacks of Jameis Winston, including 13 in the last two games. However, the picture will be a little brighter if starters Demar Dotson and Alex Cappa have returned from their injuries by then to lend strength to the right side of the line.
The Buccaneers have won of the most difficult WR tandems for any defense to deal with in the NFL in Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, but there's good news for the Cardinals' pass defense: Star cornerback Patrick Peterson is ready to return after finishing a six-game NFL suspension to start the season. In his absence, opponents' number-one receivers have averaged 79.8 yards per game, according to Football Outsiders. However, the bigger problem for Arizona's defense may be the Bucs' tight end tandem of O.J. Howard and Cam Brate. Howard and Brate haven't been quite as prolific as was hoped so far this season, but in Arizona they'll face a team that, according to FO, has been the worst in the NFL in defending tight ends.
Arizona's run defense looks like it could be exploited as well. The Cardinals are giving up 132.8 rushing yards per game, which ranks 26th in the league. LB Jordan Hicks, signed away from Philadelphia in unrestricted free agency this past spring, has stepped right into the middle of the defense as a tackling machine, with 62 tackles, tied for NFL lead. Forty-five of those 62 stops have come on running plays. Still, the Bucs could find success with their one-two punch of Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones. That duo produced more than 100 rushing yards in each of the first three games but has seen its numbers drop into double digits in each of the last three, thanks in part to game situations. Head Coach Bruce Arians would prefer a more balanced attack.
As for when the Cardinals have the ball, we could extol the virtues of the NFL's number-one rush defense, as we did in our "Road Ahead" articles on Tennessee and, in nearly plagiaristic fashion, Seattle, since the Cardinals have been strong on the ground. But this isn't the typical rushing challenge, as it's the threat of Murray taking off that makes Arizona's offense different than most. The Buccaneers would probably prefer to see Murray run than scramble for time and then throw downfield because the secondary has had some difficulties when asked to sustain coverage for long. Through six games the Bucs have allowed a league-high 304.5 net passing yards per game. Murray's ability to get the ball downfield will test a Tampa Bay defensive backfield that has allowed 26 completions of 20 or more yards, second-most in the NFL.
And Johnson remains one of the more difficult running backs to contain thanks to his wide array of skills. His rushing numbers may be a bit down but overall he's averaging a little over 102 yards from scrimmage and has scored five total touchdowns. Tampa Bay's defense has already shown on two occasions that it can stand up to that kind of dual threat, holding Christian McCaffrey below 60 yards from scrimmage in two meetings, but Johnson remains one of the toughest pass-catching backs to contain.
If the Buccaneers do have difficulty slowing down Johnson and limiting Murray's big plays, they might just have to outscore the Cardinals. A shootout would be no surprise.