The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Kansas City Chiefs on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 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
G Alex Cappa. That's Alex Cappa, leading NFC Pro Bowl vote-getter at guard, thank you. In his third season, Cappa was previously having a quietly strong season at right guard before the recent Pro Bowl update made him a trending name. Last week, he was part of a front-line effort that gave Rams superstar Aaron Donald one of the very few "shutouts" of his career, as Donald wasn't credited with a tackle, sack or quarterback hit in the Rams' narrow win over the Buccaneers on Monday Night Football. Things won't get any easier for Cappa this week, as the Chiefs and Chris Jones come to Raymond James Stadium. Obviously, Jones will move around on the Chiefs' interior line and get matched up with several different Buccaneer blockers, but his Next Gen Stats player location heat map show a large percentage of snaps lined up across from the right guard. Cappa will need strength to anchor against Jones' bull rushes and quick feet to counter when Jones tries to shoot the A or B gap to get to Tom Brady. The Buccaneers are also likely to try to establish the run game against a middling Kansas City rush defense, and Cappa's blocking will be critical to those efforts.
CB Ross Cockrell. Jamel Dean was ruled out for Sunday's game on Friday due to the concussion he suffered on Monday night, so Cockrell is expected to join Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting as the Bucs' top three cornerbacks. Even if he only plays in the nickel defense with Murphy-Bunting moving into the slot, Cockrell will still see a lot of action. So far this season, Kansas City has used "11" personnel (three receivers, one tight end) on 71.2% of their offensive snaps, which the Bucs would usually counter with a nickel. Cockrell brings a lot of NFL experience to his first full game in Tampa Bay's defense, having logged 43 previous starts, including 11 last season for Carolina. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles says Cockrell has a good grasp of the Bucs' defense and when he entered last Monday's game after Dean's departure he was always where he was supposed to be. All of the Buccaneers' defensive backs will be seriously challenged by the Chiefs' offense, which leads the league in scoring and has a wide array of pass-catching options. Further exacerbating that challenge is the fact that Kansas City quarterback Patrick Mahomes is the best in the league at getting out of the pocket, extending coverage time and making plays on the run. Cockrell and the rest of the Buccaneers' defensive backs will surely face at least a couple instances in which they have to "plaster" the player they're covering for several extra seconds.
WR Antonio Brown. In Week 10 at Carolina, in just his second game as a Buccaneer, Brown caught a team-high seven passes on eight targets. Last Monday against the Rams, Brown was the Bucs' most-targeted player, with Tom Brady throwing it his way 13 times. Brady and Brown have yet to hook up on the big downfield play that has been so common in Brown's career, but they have moved the chains and they've taken a few cracks at the deep ball. It's clear that the Buccaneers have worked specific things into their offense to take advantage of Brown's talents, and that Brown is not having trouble getting open. Kansas City's defense has actually had pretty good results against opposing passing attacks, ranking eighth with 221.6 yards allowed per game, but in their last two games they've allowed 613 passing yards and five touchdown catches to the Panthers and Raiders. Against the Rams, in a game in which neither team ever led by more than seven points, the Buccaneers ran 69 offensive plays and had Chris Godwin on the field for 68 of them and Mike Evans for 61. Brown also played 43 snaps, or 62% of the total, as the Buccaneers clearly emphasized their "11" personnel package with Brown as the third receiver. The only team to beat Kansas City this season did so in a shootout – a 40-32 upset by Las Vegas in Week Five – and the Chiefs' last two games also were high-scoring affairs that came down to the fourth quarter. The Buccaneers may have to score a bunch to keep up Sunday, and they'll probably need a big contribution from Brown to do so.
OLB Shaquil Barrett. Barrett continues to give the Buccaneers significant production as a pass rusher even though his 2020 sack total is not going to come near to the league-leading 19.5 he contributed last season. Barrett is second on the team with 5.0 sacks, and according to NFL stat service Radar360 he is tied with Kansas City's Chris Jones for second in the league with 30 QB pressures. Only Pittsburgh's T.J. Watt (40) has more. This week, Barrett will be matched up primarily with right tackle Mike Remmers, who is filling in for the injured Mitchell Schwartz, a former Pro Bowler. Remmers has played well in his four starts at right tackle but may not be at quite the same level as Schwartz as a pass-blocker. In a game in which both offenses can strike quickly and repeatedly, turnovers could end up being the difference and Barrett has a way of making those happen. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Barrett has caused 11 turnovers with his quarterback pressures since the start of 2019, the most in the NFL in that span. Barrett still has an outside shot at getting back to double digit sacks, needing to average one per game the rest of the way, but even if he doesn't hit that mark for a second year in a row he will continue to be one of the team's most impactful defenders.
QB Tom Brady. We only occasionally include the quarterback in this section, because who needs to be told to watch the quarterback. That said, all eyes will be on Tampa in the late afternoon Sunday specifically because the game will match the G.O.A.T. and his team against the man who very well succeed Brady with that title in the future. Brady probably isn't ready to turn that mantle over just yet, and he'll look for his third win in four meetings with a Patrick Mahomes-led Chiefs team. The Buccaneers offense has hit some impressive highs this season with Brady at the helm – they are sixth in the league in scoring and just two weeks ago summoned up 544 yards and 46 points – but it has been a bit up-and-down lately. During the first half of the season, Brady connected on a good number of downfield throws with a variety of receivers, but those big plays in the passing game have eluded the Buccaneers over the last four games. On Friday, Brady said, "[It] just comes down to not as good execution as I think we're capable of. We're working hard to improve it and we'll go out there and try and do a much better job this week."
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 9-15-105-1. Normally, defenses want to harass the opposing quarterback and move him off his spot…but there's nothing normal about Patrick Mahomes. The Buccaneers obviously want to sack him and affect his throws with pressure, but they'd rather not see him making throws on the run because he's arguably even more dangerous doing that than throwing from a clean pocket. Against the Raiders in Week 11, Mahomes threw 15 passes while on the run (moving at a speed of eight or more miles per hour) and completed nine of them for 105 yards and one touchdown.
· 73.7%/67.5%/68.6%/75.9%. Early in the third period of last Monday's game, Jason Pierre-Paul intercepted a Jared Goff pass and ran it back to the Rams' 22. The Buccaneers ended up getting a game-tying field goal out of that turnover but might have had a different final game outcome if they had scored a touchdown. Since that drive stalled at the 20-yard line, it did not count as an inside-the-20 possession, but it was essentially the same thing and the Buccaneers have generally been very good in that situation this year. That could be a deciding factor in a game on Sunday that many expect to be high-scoring, with red zone touchdowns trumping red zone field goals. The first two percentages above are how the Bucs and Chiefs have fared in offensive red zone TD percentage, respectively, which ranks fifth and ninth in the NFL. The second two numbers are how the teams have done on defense in the same category. The Bucs rank just 25th on that list and the Chiefs are dead last.
· 73.0. Nothing particularly complicated about this one. After leading the NFL in rush defense in 2019 with 73.8 yards allowed per game, the Buccaneers are back atop those rankings in 2020 through 11 weeks, allowing almost the exact same per-game average. Tampa Bay is also repeating in the top spot for yards allowed per carry (3.26 in 2019, 3.20 in 2020). Obviously, Mahomes drives the Chiefs offense, which ranks first in the NFL in passing yards per game. But he will become much more dangerous if Kansas City can get standout rookie back Clyde Edwards-Helaire going and make it harder for Buccaneer defensive backs to distinguish between pass and run on play-action passes. As always, the Bucs will go into the game with the intention of first shutting down the running game before they can really turn up the heat on the quarterback.
· 90/86/7/10. Mahomes has six different pass-catchers to whom he's completed at least 20 passes, but by far the two weapons the Bucs must worry about first in the passing attack are tight end Travis Kelce and speed-demon wideout Tyreek Hill. Kelce and Hill have been targeted 90 and 86 times, respectively, far more than any other player on the team. Kelce has more targets per game, and far more receiving yards (896) than any other tight end in the NFL. Hill is tied for 15th among wide receivers in that category. Mahomes is wise to target those two because they often turn into touchdowns; Hill has scored on 10 of his 55 catches and Kelce has found the end zone seven times. The only pair of teammates in the NFL to have combined for 17 touchdown catches so far are Kelce and Hill and the Seahawks wide receiver duo of D.K. Metcalf and Tyler Lockett.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers may not know exactly how their offensive line is going to stack up until a couple hours before Sunday's 4:25 p.m. kickoff. Both left tackle Donovan Smith and left guard Ali Marpet were listed as questionable on Friday's injury report. Smith will test out his injured ankle before the game. Marpet practiced fully all week but as of Friday was not yet out of the NFL's concussion protocol. In addition, reserve center A.Q. Shipley, who has started the last two games at center with Ryan Jensen filling in for Marpet at left guard, suffered what Head Coach Bruce Arians called a career-ending neck injury on Monday night. While Smith and Shipley were out at separate times during the Rams game, Josh Wells stepped in at left tackle and Aaron Stinnie played left guard. If Stinnie gets the call at left guard Sunday, it will be his first NFL start.
· As if the Chiefs' offense was lacking in dynamic weapons, the team is likely to get wide receiver Sammy Watkins back in the mix on Sunday. Watkins played the first five games of the season and started four of them, with 21 catches for 222 yards and two touchdowns, but he hasn't played since Week Five due to a hamstring injury. Even though Watkins recently added a calf ailment to the list he still practiced fully throughout the week.
· With CB Jamel Dean out, Ross Cockrell is expected to join Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting in the Bucs' prevalent nickel package. More on Cockrell, who has 43 career NFL starts, above in the Players to Watch.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 12 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE CHIEFS
The Chiefs have the NFL's top-ranked passing attack, guided by leading NFL MVP candidate Patrick Mahomes, who has thrown 27 touchdown passes and just two interceptions this season. Mahomes' favorite targets are tight end Travis Kelce and wide receiver Sammy Watkins, but he does spread the ball around quite a bit and he operates within a very creative system designed by Head Coach Andy Reid. The Chiefs' defense has been better against the pass (eighth in league rankings) than the run (26th) but is allowing the seventh fewest points per game in the NFL. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
As noted in our Scouting Report of the Chiefs earlier this week, the Kansas City passing game goes from explosive to downright scary when Patrick Mahomes slides out of the pocket and buys time for some improvisational throws that many quarterbacks wouldn't attempt. Often when a quarterback rolls well out to his right or left the defense can stop worrying about players on the opposite side of the field, but that's not the case when the ball is in Mahomes' hand. As such, they stretch the field horizontally as well as vertically and make it very difficult to keep everyone covered for a few extra seconds. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles identified this as the number-one concern when preparing to face Mahomes, saying, "The biggest thing is we've got to stay in coverage when he breaks the pocket. Once the pocket breaks down and he starts improvising and those guys start running to open spaces, we've got to plaster once he breaks the pocket. That will be the biggest thing to concentrate on."
When discussing the Chiefs' defense on Friday, Brady noted that Kansas City has "a lot of good guys in the secondary" and specifically pointed to safeties Daniel Sorensen and Tyrann Mathieu and cornerback Bashaud Breeland. Sorensen leads the team in both tackles (61) and interceptions (three); Breeland has only allowed 3.6 yards per target as the nearest defender, according to Next Gen Stats; and Mathieu is the classic versatile chess piece who plays deep, in the box and in the slot and can rush the passer. Those three are also part of a defense that has made it hard to complete passes well downfield. According to Next Gen Stats again, through the first 10 weeks of the season the Chiefs had only allowed a 39.8% completion rate on balls thrown 10 or more yards downfield in the air, which is second-best in the NFL. They've also picked off six of those passes, tied for fifth best. The only game this season in which the Chiefs really struggled in this department was in Week Five against Las Vegas (101.3 passer rating allowed), and that also happens to be their only loss so far.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On the added motivation of facing the defending Super Bowl champions:
"Yeah, I think the players get up for it. For coaches, it's just the next game but the players get up for it. It's something special. You always want to beat those guys and prove something to yourselves."