Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Countdown to Kickoff: Bills-Bucs

The Buccaneers are gearing up for a big Sunday showdown between two prime playoff contenders led by two very dangerous but very different quarterbacks…Players to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and more

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The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Buffalo Bills in Week 14 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:25 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:

5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH

Jamel Dean. When Carlton Davis returned to action in Week 13 the Buccaneers went back to the cornerback combination with which they opened the season, with Davis and Dean on the outside positions and Sean Murphy-Bunting in the slot. As was the case in Week One, that combination didn't even make it through one entire game, as Dean was sidelined in the second half by a concussion. However, the team was hopeful that Dean would clear that protocol on Friday and be able to play against the Bills. Assuming he does, he'll be part of the effort to slow down Bills wide receiver Stefon Diggs, who leads his team with 71 catches for 898 yards and seven touchdowns. Diggs has always been a big-play producer and he gets a lot of work done on the boundaries. Since the start of 2020, Diggs has racked up 1,200 yards on catches outside the numbers, second most in the NFL in that span. Dean has also worked the outer part of the field well in 2021 and he is tied for the team lead with eight passes defensed. Buffalo QB Josh Allen has a powerful arm and can easily sling it deep, even while on the move, but Dean has the speed to keep up if the Bills try to hit big plays downfield with Diggs or any other pass-catchers who work down the left sideline.

Rob Gronkowski. When Gronkowski is in the lineup, he's almost always one of the most entertaining players on the field, whether he's loping down the seams and through the secondary or grabbing back-corner throws over smaller defenders in the end zone. He's done a lot of that this season; not counting a Week Eight game in which he left after just six snaps, Gronkowski has played in six games and he's had two touchdowns in three of them. His connection with Tom Brady, honed over many, many, many games together, manifests itself with subtle alterations at the line that lead to big plays, like his second touchdown in Atlanta last Sunday. On Thursday, Brady called Gronkowski the greatest tight end of all time and said that his long-time teammate is still catching, running and blocking as well as he ever has. The Buccaneers have succeeded against defenses scheming to take away big shots downfield by having Tom Brady get rid of the ball quickly and distribute it to a wide variety of weapons, and that approach has worked particularly well since the return of Gronkowski in Week 12. The big tight end's ability to work the middle of the field gives Brady another ready option when facing two-safety shells trying to keep a lid on the outside passes.

Anthony Nelson. Earlier this week, Head Coach Bruce Arians said that Nelson (and fellow reserve OLB Cam Gill) has been earning more playing time with his improved performances. Actually, that seems to be already happening, as Nelson's 21 defensive snaps in Atlanta were his second most in any game this season and had him on the field for 30% of the action. In his last four games, Nelson has recorded 2.0 sacks and six quarterback hits, with at least one QB hit in each of those outings. The Buccaneers have a talented veteran duo at outside linebacker in Shaq Barrett and Jason Pierre-Paul but are trying to keep those older players fresh by bringing down their snap count a little bit. Nelson is helping in that effort by taking a larger chunk of playing time without the pass rush suffering when he's on the field. Nelson's quarterback pressure rate on his pass rushes, as compiled by NFL Next Gen Stats, is a very healthy 14.3%, and he showed what he can do against the Giants in Week 11 with three pressures on just 11 pass rushes. Nelson didn't have more than one QB pressure in any of the Bucs' first nine game but has recorded multiple pressures in each of the last three contests.

Chris Godwin. What will Godwin do as an encore to his record-breaking performance in Atlanta last Sunday? It could be just about anything. Since the start of last year, Godwin has more than 150 receiving yards on nine different types of routes (hitch, post, go, etc.), and he also goes in motion more than any other player on the Bucs' offense. In fact, he has the third-highest percentage of plays in which he shifts or is in motion (23%) of all NFL receivers since 2020, and on those plays he has an NFL-high 535 yards. Godwin caught 15 passes for 143 yards in Atlanta to set a new single-game record for the Bucs and a single-game high for any NFL player this year, and he did it both with quick screens and contested-ball catches downfield. Oh, and don't blink or he'll run the ball around the end on you for a quick third-down conversion; he has run the ball one time in each of the Bucs' last three games. Godwin is now up to 82 receptions on the season, which ranks sixth in the NFL and puts him on pace for 117 by season's end. Tampa Bay's single-season catch record is 106, set by Keyshawn Johnson back in 2001, and that remains the only 100-catch campaign in team history. So far.

Lavonte David. Josh Allen has 422 rushing yards in 2021, and while he's not the only quarterback in the NFL offering big-time value with his legs, he is a different kind of threat than the Bucs have faced so far this season. Bruce Arians said earlier in the week that part of what makes Allen so dangerous on the ground is the way Offensive Coordinator Brian Daboll schemes runs for him, setting him loose on the ground on plays that look very much like they are going to be a pass. That's the kind of thing that the Bucs' cerebral and instinctive defensive captain, David, is going to have to figure out on the fly on Sunday afternoon. David and fellow off-ball linebacker Devin White are going to be two of the Bucs' most important players when it comes to spying on Allen and keeping him from getting out into the open field. David also has to deal with a talented tight end in Dawson Knox, who has already scored seven touchdowns, and a deep stable of Bills running backs that have helped the team average 4.5 yards per carry. And if Sunday's game turns into a nail-biter, it could come down to which team can come up with the timely takeaways. That's a department in which David thrives.

4 STATS THAT MATTER

  • 20%/36%. In each of Josh Allen's first three seasons, he ranked among the top three quarterbacks in the NFL in terms of how often opposing defenses blitzed him. This year, the opposition has taken a decidedly different approach, at least some of the Bills' opponents have done so. Overall, Allen has been blitzed on just 19% of his dropbacks, which is the second-lowest rate faced by any quarterback this season. In five of Buffalo's 12 games so far the opposing defense has blitzed fewer than 20% of the time, and the Bills have lost all five of those games. Would the Bucs consider adopting that strategy, given the results? It would be a major departure from their approach. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, the Bucs have blitzed at a rate of 36%, which is the second highest of any team in the league. Tampa Bay has not had a game yet in which it blitzed on fewer than 20% of the opposition's dropbacks.
  • 165.3/5.66/62.9/8/12-2. Buffalo has the best pass defense in the NFL by a number of measures, including their league-leading mark of 165.3 yards allowed per game. The Bills' defense also ranks first in yards allowed per pass attempt (5.66), opponent passer rating (62.9) and passing touchdowns allowed (8). Buffalo has surrendered the fewest passing first downs (98) and the fewest completions of 25 or more yards (8). However, Tom Brady has been up for these sorts of challenges throughout his career. This will be the 15th time he's matched up against the NFL's top-ranked pass defense, and he went 12-2 in the first 14. His record in home games against number-one pass defenses is a shiny 8-0.
  • 1,067 and 9. Leonard Fournette needs to average 67 yards on the ground per game down the stretch to get his first 1,000-yard rushing season as a Buccaneer. However, because he has emerged as such an important part of Tampa Bay's passing attack, Fournette is already into four digits in yards from scrimmage, with 1,067. Fournette came into Week 14 leading all NFL running backs with 58 catches (Pittsburgh's Najee Harris passed him and got to 60 on Thursday night) and his nine touchdowns are his most since his rookie season in Jacksonville. With the Bills defense drastically suppressing big passing plays, Fournette could once again play a big role Sunday on both the ground and in the quick passing game.
  • 66.67%/61.1%/50.00%/25/0%. When and if the Buccaneers penetrate Buffalo's red zone on Sunday it will become a battle of heavy strengths. Overall, Tampa Bay has scored a touchdown on 66.67% of their red zone possessions this season, which is tied for the fifth-best mark in the NFL. The Bucs have not been daunted by third downs when in those tight quarters, converting on 61.1% of their tries, which is not only significantly better than their overall third-down success rate of 48.0% but also the best rate in the NFL. However, Buffalo's red zone defense is tied for fourth best in the NFL, allowing touchdowns on just 50.00% of such possessions. Buffalo has also allowed a third-down conversion rate in that part of the field of 25.0%, third best in the league

3 LINEUP NOTES

  • The Buccaneers will be without starting safety Jordan Whitehead for at least another game as he has been ruled out for Sunday's contest due to his calf injury. Veteran Andrew Adams started in his place last Sunday in Atlanta and played 82% of the Bucs' defensive snaps. Cornerback Ross Cockrell is also available to play safety and the Bucs have begun training cornerback Richard Sherman at that spot, though he would likely only be an emergency option at this point.
  • Buffalo ruled starting defensive tackle Star Lotulelei out on Friday's injury report due to a toe ailment. When Lotulelei missed three games in November he was replaced in the starting lineup by third-year man Harrison Phillips, who also started three contests for Buffalo last year. Phillips has recorded 30 tackles, one tackle for loss and two quarterback hits in nine outings this season.
  • Wide receiver Jaelon Darden and cornerback Jamel Dean both cleared the NFL's concussion protocol on Friday, which means they are available to play on Sunday, though both were listed as 'questionable' on the injury report. In Darden's absence last weekend, the Buccaneers used running back Giovani Bernard as the return man for both punts and kickoffs. If Dean can play, Tampa Bay will be able to field its season-opening trio of cornerbacks – Dean, Carlton Davis and Sean Murphy-Bunting – for just the third time this season.

2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE BILLS

Josh Allen's numbers may be down a bit from his MVP-level performance in 2020, but he has still been a wrecking ball for opposing defenses more often than not. In Buffalo's seven wins, Allen has a passer rating of 113.2, with a 19-5 TD-INT ratio and a completion rate of 67.9%, plus 34.3 rushing yards per game and two scores on the ground. Stefon Diggs is closing in on another 1,000-yard season and Dawson Knox, with seven touchdowns, has given the Bills a weapon at the tight end position. The off-ball linebacker duo of Matt Milano and Tremaine Edmunds can both excel in coverage and rush the passer, safety Jordan Poyer has five interceptions and Taron Johnson is one of the best slot corners in the NFL. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.

Something may have to give between the Buccaneers' preferred approach on defense and how the Bills like to run their offense. Tampa Bay led the NFL in run defense in both 2019 and 2020 and currently ranks second in that category in 2021. In addition to having very talented run defenders, the Buccaneers also like to crowd the area around the line of scrimmage; according to NFL Next Gen Stats Tampa Bay's defense uses a "loaded box" on 61% of its snaps, the highest percentage in the league. Meanwhile, Buffalo likes to spread things out before the snap. Their average "formational space" of 27.9 yards is the fourth widest in the NFL and they even use four wide receivers on 11% of their plays, which is second most in the league. As such, they have faced light boxes on 69% of their snaps as opposing defenses have spread out to match their formations. The Buccaneers go into every game with the initial goal of stopping the opponent's running game in order to make the offense one-dimensional and increase their chances of getting to the passer. They will need to be careful in aggressively going after the run on Sunday, though, because Josh Allen frequently used play-action and is adept at it. Buffalo has used a play-action fake on 31% of its passes this season, which is the fourth-most in the NFL.

In a number of games this season – most recently the Week 12 win in Indianapolis – the Buccaneers' offense has had to rely mostly on the running game and short passes because the opposing defense has made it a priority to take away the big plays downfield. Fortunately, Tom Brady has excelled under those circumstances, compiling a league-best 125.5 passer rating on short passes (0-9 yards in the air), and the Buccaneers have been able to move the ball with whatever approach the defense is demanding. If the Buccaneers do hope to get the ball downfield a few times on Sunday, as they did last weekend in Atlanta to Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, they'll find it even more challenging than ever. Buffalo's defense has allowed only five "deep" completions this season, according to Next Gen Stats, the fewest in the league, and opponents have only tried go deep on 6% of their passes, the second lowest against any defense. Buffalo also has seven interceptions on deep attempts, the most by any team this season, and the fewest yards allowed (161) on such plays. The next-lowest total, 351 by the Chargers, is more than twice as much as what Buffalo has allowed.

1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS

On the likelihood of high temperatures for Sunday's game at Raymond James Stadium:

"It should be beneficial to us. It's going to be warm for them, that's for sure. You can only turn the heat up in the building so high without dehydrating everybody. I've been down that road, too. So yeah, it's nice to have home field advantage."

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