The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Los Angeles Chargers on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul. Ndamukong Suh had two sacks in the Bucs' win over Carolina as the defense applied a lot of pressure up the middle on that afternoon. The following Sunday, Shaq Barrett stole the show with a pair of sacks in his homecoming to Denver. Rookie Antoine Winfield had a sack in both of those games on his way to renown as the NFL Defensive Rookie of the Month. But only one man has a sack in every game for the Bucs so far this season: Jason Pierre-Paul. In fact, dating back to the last two games of 2019, Pierre-Paul has a streak of five games with a sack, with a total of eight QB takedowns in that stretch. Pierre-Paul could tie his own team record (also shared by Simeon Rice) by making it six in a row this Sunday. The Buccaneers will be trying to make rookie quarterback Justin Herbert uncomfortable, but Herbert has shown the ability to succeed against the blitz in his first two starts so getting to him with a four-man rush and more men in coverage would be particularly helpful to the Bucs' cause. Pierre-Paul will be matched up largely with left tackle Sam Tevi, who had been the Chargers' starting right tackle prior to 2020. L.A. has allowed six sacks through three games so far.
TE Rob Gronkowski. We'll spare you the 8,000th joke about the Buccaneers' "blocking tight end" getting some surprise catches in Denver. Gronkowski had a big game against the Broncos after catching only two passes across the Bucs' first two games, and it had a lot to do with the Denver defense choosing to pay extra attention to Mike Evans. There's a good chance the Chargers will follow suit since they don't have to deal with both Evans and Chris Godwin, so the Buccaneers might turn to their TE duo of Gronkowski and O.J. Howard again on Sunday. Gronkowski picked on the Broncos linebackers on several occasions in Week Three and the Buccaneers may try to see how well Chargers rookie Kenneth Murray holds up in coverage, which was a question mark in the scouting report of the first-round pick out of Oklahoma. Gronkowski made all of his catches on underneath routes in Denver but he did get open deep on one play, with Tom Brady's pass just taking him out of the back of the end zone.
S Antoine Winfield. Just three games into his NFL career, Winfield is already the chess piece that the Buccaneers move all over the defense. That was true through the first two-and-a-half games when he was manning the free safety position, as he could be anywhere from deep coverage to on the edge rushing the passer. It became even more true when Sean Murphy-Bunting left the Denver game with a groin injury and Winfield moved into the slot corner spot. The defense didn't miss a beat after that change, Winfield showed he could blitz from that position, too, and his replacement at safety, Mike Edwards, ended Denver's last drive with an interception. Murphy-Bunting has been cleared to play but the Bucs could still choose to play Winfield in the slot some. In any case he's likely to be on the field as much as possible in one capacity or another. Hailed by his coaches and teammates as a rookie who plays like a five-year veteran, Winfield has shown that he has the mental acumen to handle multiple jobs in the defense and he's also quickly proving that he is a big-time playmaker.
RB Ronald Jones. Jones has been splitting carries so far this season with Leonard Fournette, the former Jaguar who was signed just about a week before the season. At times, both he and Fournette have had the hot hand and have gotten a larger share of the workload. That will not be an option for Bruce Arians in Week Four, as Fournette has been ruled out due to an ankle injury that kept him out of practice all week. LeSean McCoy or even rookie Ke'Shawn Vaughn, who has yet to play on offense, could take some of the handoffs but this game is likely to be largely in Jones's hands. So far, he has carried 37 times for 142 yards and one touchdown and caught six passes for an additional 40 yards. The Buccaneers have been trying to establish the ground game early, running the ball on first down 47.3% of the time, the seventh-highest percentage in the league. The Chargers' defense has surrendered 109.3 rushing yards per game and ranks 20th in the NFL with an average of 4.6 yards allowed per carry.
DL Will Gholston. Gholston is rightfully lauded as an outstanding run-stopper in a defense that is perfect for his skillset. However, this season he is quietly making an impact as a pass-rusher, too, and that goes beyond the one sack and two quarterback hits. According to NFL Next Gen stats, as reported by ESPN, Gholston ranks third among all NFL interior linemen in pass rush win rate, at 19%. The 6-6 Gholston is a big man and he's very strong, so he's a load for opposing guards to handle. This week, he'll be going against a line that has already lost its starting center (Mike Pouncey) and has several other injury issues, including one that will keep Pro Bowl guard Trai Turner out of the lineup. But Los Angeles has overcome those issues so far to rank as one of the NFL's best running teams, with 151.7 yards per game. Gholston is part of the NFL's best run defense since the start of 2019 but he and his fellow front seven players will face a serious challenge this week.
View photos of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers 53-man roster.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
• 80.0%/22.2%/100.0%/0.0%. The early-season number suggest that the most heavily-contested yards on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium will be between the Chargers' 19-yard line and their goal line. Tampa Bay has been one of the best red zone and goal-to-go teams in the league so far, while Los Angeles has been the best defense in that area. The first two numbers above contrast the Buccaneers' red zone TD rate on offense (tied for 4th in the NFL) with the red zone TD rate the Chargers have allowed on defense (1st in the NFL). The contrast is even more stark on goal-to-go drives. The Buccaneers are a perfect eight-for-eight on such opportunities this year (tied for 1st) while the Chargers' defense has not allowed any of three such drives to reach the end zone (1st).
• 63.2%/92.4/9.1. Those three numbers all have to do with Justin Herbert's performance against blitzes in his first two starts. The first is his completion percentage, followed by his passer rating and his yards per attempt, the last of which ranks ninth in the NFL in that situation. Collectively, those numbers are good but not great – Washington's Dwayne Haskins, for instance, has posted figures of 66.7%, 102.5 and 10.8 – but they are impressive for a very green passer getting his first taste of the NFL. They are, however, a very small sample size and they don't necessarily prove that blitzing Herbert would be a bad idea on Sunday. Will Todd Bowles choose to turn up the heat?
• 71.9%. The Buccaneers' defense is likely to be in the nickel for much of the afternoon on Sunday. The Chargers' offense has used 11 personnel (three receivers) on 71.9% of their plays this year, which is the fifth-highest percentage in the league. Of course, the Buccaneers just faced the team with the fourth-highest percentage in that category, Denver, and allowed just 226 yards and 10 points. Los Angeles probably won't change its approach, even with Mike Williams out, because the 11 package has been their most successful, averaging 6.0 yards per play.
• 105.2. The Buccaneers have only had Tom Brady throw 18 of his 109 passes after a play-action fake so far this season, which is a lower percentage than what he generally did in New England. However, the Bucs' passing game has been markedly better on the plays without a fake handoff. On his 91 passes without play action, Brady has a passer rating of 105.2 and a completion percentage of 68.1. He's also averaging 9.9 yards per pass attempt on those throws.
3 LINEUP NOTES
• The Chargers made it official on Friday, ruling out Tyrod Taylor, which means rookie Justin Herbert will make his third straight start. Los Angeles is 0-2 in Herbert's first two starts but both were narrow losses and the rookie passer threw for more than 300 yards in each contest. With Taylor out, Herbert is backed up by Easton Stick, a 2019 fifth-round pick out of North Dakota State who has yet to throw a regular-season NFL pass.
• The Buccaneers could be without two-thirds of their usual three-receiver lineup, as Chris Godwin and Scotty Miller are dealing with injuries. Godwin has already been ruled out, though Miller could still be cleared on Sunday. Either way, Godwin's absence likely means a start for third-year man Justin Watson and an uptick in playing time for rookie Tyler Johnson, who saw his first NFL action last week in Denver after Godwin was hurt. Jaydon Mickens, primarily a return man, could factor in the mix as well.
• The Chargers will be without the right side of their offensive line, as guard Trai Turner and tackle Bryan Bulaga did not practice this week and were ruled out on Friday. Tyree St. Louis started for Turner last week but only lasted three plays before leaving due to "lightheadedness." He then showed up on this week's injury report with a concussion but was able to return to full participation by Thursday. Trey Pipkins came into the game last week when Bulaga left with his injury.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE CHARGERS
The Chargers have moved the ball through the first three weeks of the season, averaging 425.7 yards of offense per game and ranking in the top eight in both rushing and passing. They've also converted 50% of their third-down tries and racked up the eighth-most first downs in the NFL. On defense, the Chargers have allowed the eighth-lowest total yards, are 10th in preventing third-down conversions and, as noted above, have been extremely stingy in the red zone. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Austin Ekeler is the Chargers' top offensive threat and can hurt opposing defenses just as much in the passing game as on the ground. Keenan Allen is a Michael Thomas-like high-volume receiver who is tied for the league lead in targets and will often be Herbert's first read. But the offensive player who might sneakily pose a big threat to the Buccaneers is Hunter Henry, who has been one of the NFL's most productive tight ends when healthy, particularly in the red zone. That last issue has been a problem; he missed 23 games in his first four seasons. Henry has been healthy in 2020 and ranks second among all NFL tight ends with 206 receiving yards, second only to Kansas City superstar Travis Kelce. So far, his per-game averages of 5.3 catches and 68.7 yards are the highest of his career, and the Chargers' offense is averaging 9.0 yards per play when targeting Henry. Henry is a smooth route-runner with very reliable hands and he ran a 4.66 40-yard dash in the run-up to the 2016 draft.
Joey Bosa is the Chargers' best defensive player, a claim that's easier to make with Derwin James, Melvin Ingram and Chris Harris all on injured reserve. One of the NFL's most dangerous pass-rushers, he has a sack in each Los Angeles game so far this season and has accounted for half of his team's total in that category. Bosa most often rushes over right tackle, which means he'll be dealing with a rookie on Sunday, and even though Tristan Wirfs has started his career with three strong outings this will still represent one of his biggest challenges of the season. Bosa is quick around the corner and good at keeping blockers' hands off him with twists and bends. He can also win with a bull-rush, and in the run game he can stand up an opposing blocker and then shed the block at just the right time to corral the ballcarrier.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On the Chargers' defense being very tough in the red zone:
"They're extremely well-coached and they know their scheme. It's a little bit different scheme, but the big thing for them is they've got such a good pass rush and they match up very well. They make the quarterback execute."