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 Houston Texans in Week 16.
Opponent: Houston Texans
Dates, Locations: Week 16, December 22, Raymond James Stadium, Tampa, Florida
Top Offensive Performer: QB Deshaun Watson…1,644 passing yards, 69.7% completion percentage, 12 touchdowns (t-4th in the NFL), 3 interceptions, 107.9 passer rating (4th in the NFL) 164 rushing yards (3rd in the NFL among QBs) and five rushing touchdowns (1st in the NFL among QBs and t-6th overall)
Top Defensive Performer: DE J.J. Watt…18 tackles, 4.0 sacks, 14 QB hits (t-1st in the NFL), one pass defensed, one forced fumble, two fumble recoveries
Notable Strength: Simply put, the Texans can move the ball. Watson has two receivers in DeAndre Hopkins and Will Fuller over 400 yards and another five targets with at least 10 receptions and 100 yards. Carlos Hyde has been the surprise workhorse back after the season-ending injury to Lamar Miller and he's got a productive sidekick in trade acquisition Duke Johnson. And Watson himself can move the chains with a key scramble here and there. It all adds up to an offense that is sixth overall, fifth on the ground and 10th through the air. Houston is also first in the league in third-down conversion rate (51.4%) and only 11.1% of their drives have ended in three-and-outs. That's the second lowest percentage in the league. The Texans don't get bogged down in the red zone, either, with a 71.43% touchdown rate that is tied for first in the league.
Notable Weakness: Deshaun Watson got sacked a whole heck of a lot last season – 62 times, in fact, a league high. The Texans have tried hard to address that issue, even trading for Miami left tackle Laremy Tunsil right before the season, but things have still been a bit rough on Watson. He's been sacked 18 times and the Texans' offense ranks 26th in sacks allowed per pass play. Meanwhile, the Houston defense has given up 94 plays of 10 or more yards, the most in the NFL.
How the Bucs Match Up:
For all their offensive firepower and ability to move the ball, the Texans are averaging 27.0 points per game, which is very good but almost two points per game less than the Buccaneers. This is another date on the Bucs' remaining schedule that looks like it could be a high-scoring affair, with the outcome probably coming down to the last five minutes. The Buccaneers have scored 49 fourth-quarter points this season, third-most in the NFL. The Texans are just behind at 42 points, tied for the sixth most.
Paramount to the Buccaneers' ability to hold onto the football and maximize their possessions in this potential shootout will be the ability to stop pass-rushers J.J. Watt and Whitney Mercilus, who have combined for nine of Houston's 16 sacks on defense this year. That has looked like a problem for Tampa Bay in the last two weeks, with 13 sacks allowed to the Saints and Panthers combined, though injuries on the O-Line have contributed to that. The Bucs had been allowing three sacks per game through the season's first month, generally giving Jameis Winston time to operate an explosive passing attack. Obviously, there is no way to know how the two teams' injury situations will look two months from now when they meet.
The Buccaneers should be able to move the ball against Houston's defense. The Texans rank 18th in overall net yards allowed per game (356.0) and 24th in passing yards allowed (268.0), and they are giving up third-down conversions at a rate of 45.5%, tied for 26th in the NFL. Houston's defense has also been generous in the red zone, allowing a touchdown conversion rate of 61.1% to tie for 22nd. Houston's run defense ranks eighth in the league, giving up just 88.0 yards per game, but that's misleading. Opposing offenses aren't really trying to run that much on the Texans, passing on 68.0% of their plays, which is the second-highest rate against any defense. When the Texans are run on, their giving up 4.40 yards per carry, which only ranks 20th in the NFL. The running game often looms large down the stretch of an NFL season; the Buccaneers may be leaning heavily on the duo of Ronald Jones and Peyton Barber at that point in the campaign, and those two could find success against Houston's defense.
On defense, Tampa Bay's secondary is going to have to hold up against a high volume of passes and try not to get slowly carved to death, particularly given how good Houston has been on third downs. The Texans are middle of the pack in the NFL when trying to throw deep (ball travels more than 20 yards downfield in the air) – trying to do so 34 times (second-most in the NFL) but only completing 41.2% of those passes. Despite that, Watson has completed nearly 70% of his passes overall and the Texans are averaging 9.78 yards per target, which is fifth-best in the NFL. Obviously, they've been very successful on short and midrange throws. When throwing short/intermediate over the middle, for instance, Houston is averaging 8.26 yards per play, eighth-best in the NFL. Watson spreads it around, with six players already catching at least one touchdown pass and four catching at least two.
Much could change in two months, but when looking at the Buccaneers'' road ahead, the penultimate weekend of the season looks like it could be one of the most exciting dates on the schedule. Tampa Bay's offense will have to keep Watt and Mercilus out of the backfield as much as possible, but if Winston has time to throw he could find himself in a battle of gunslingers with Houston's Watson.