Over the last three weeks of the 2014 season, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have fielded the fifth-most productive passing attack in the NFL. The explosive emergence of rookie wide receiver Mike Evans has been the leading factor in that uprising, and last week in Chicago an apparent focus on Evans led to a pair of 100-yard games for Vincent Jackson and Louis Murphy.
One might expect the Buccaneers to lean on that aerial attack against the 7-3-1 Cincinnati Bengals Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, and it's certainly possible that one of those three receivers will prove to be the team's best weapon. However, Head Coach Lovie Smith insists that the Bucs' running game remains the key to unlocking the offense's potential against a strong Bengals defense.
"I think you have to stay committed to the run first in order to keep those holes open," said Smith. "We have three receivers that have all come up big for us but we're still not satisfied with the running game. So we'll stay committed to it, and when we get opportunities to pass the ball we'll do that."
The complicating factor in that endeavor is a long list of injured players, many of whom are critical to providing the blocking Tampa Bay's backs need to get going. In fact, all three of the tight ends who spent the first 12 weeks on the roster – Brandon Myers (calf), Austin Seferian-Jenkins (back) and Luke Stocker (concussion) – are inactive for Sunday's game due to injury. With starting center Evan Dietrich-Smith also sidelined by an illness and starting fullback Jorvorskie Lane hitting injured reserve earlier this week, the Buccaneers will be looking for a variety of solutions to keep the running game active and to keep QB Josh McCown upright. Rookie TE Cameron Brate, just promoted from the practice squad, is expected to start at fullback and the Bucs have also added former Green Bay Packer TE D.J. Williams to the roster. The most likely scenario is that the team will confront the problem with a variety of options, including the use of an extra offensive linemen in the tight end spot at times.
Still, a robust rushing attack would certainly take the pressure off McCown, who has averaged about 300 passing yards per game since returning to the starting role three weeks ago but was involved in three costly turnovers last Sunday in Chicago. The Buccaneers came fairly close to doubling the Bears' yardage output by game's end on Sunday but saw a 10-point lead evaporate in the third quarter due to offensive giveaways. They have to avoid duplicating that formula on Sunday against the Bengals.
"It's the most important stat to tell who wins the football game," said Smith. "Offensively, we have to protect the ball; anybody who has the ball has to secure it. On the other side, you can't wait for them to turn it over, you have to take it away and be aggressive in your approach."
Tampa Bay's defense has not produced the takeaways at the expected rate this season but has proved much more stingy in terms of yards and points over the last five weeks. The pass defense has been particularly strong over the last two games on the road, as the longest reception by a wide receiver against Washington and Chicago combined was 15 yards. Against the Bears, the Bucs got veteran Alterraun Verner back from a hamstring injury, and he paired up with the rapidly-rising Johnthan Banks to give the team a very solid pair of corners.
"Johnthan Banks has been consistent with his play, for the most part, throughout," said Smith. "He's really shown up each week. We missed having Alterraun Verner out there but last week he came on strong. We need that. Cincinnati has a couple great receivers; we'll really need them to be at their best this week."
The receivers to which Smith alludes are A.J. Green, a three-time Pro Bowler in three NFL seasons, and Mohamed Sanu, who emerged as a big-play producer during a three-game injury absence by Green. The Bengals' offense also sports one of the better one-two punches at running back in second-year man Giovani Bernard and rookie Jeremy Hill.
"They're all very good football players and of course Green is as good as there is in the league," said Smith. "Quarterback-wise, they've been solid throughout. They have a commitment to the run. They will check us out in both phases, running and passing the ball."
And the Bucs are a bit depleted on the defensive side of the ball, too, with All-Pro LB Lavonte David missing his second straight game and being joined on the sideline by starting DT Clinton McDonald. Both are dealing with nagging hamstring issues. Once again, Danny Lansanah will slide over into the all-important WILL linebacker spot, with Orie Lemon stepping up to play on the strong side.
"Of course we miss him, the greatest outside 'backer in ball; when he doesn't play you're not as good," said Smith. "But guys really stepped up [in Chicago] – Danny Lansanah moving into his spot, Orie Lemon moving into the SAM linebacker position. We're not the same without him but we played possibly our best defensive game last week without him."
The Bucs are hoping to overcome those difficulties to record their first home win of the 2014 season and stay very much alive in the NFC South playoff hunt.
"In order to get a home field advantage we have to do our part," said Smith. "We haven't so far but with all that said, we're in great position, two games out of first place. We have to win our game at home. We plan on starting fast and finishing strong."
The Buccaneers take on the Bengals in Week 13 of the 2014 season on Sunday afternoon, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be broadcast on television by CBS and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM. That radio broadcast will also be carried live on Buccaneers.com.