The 3-7 Tampa Bay Buccaneers begin a three-week homestand this Sunday when they welcome the 2-8 San Francisco 49ers to Raymond James Stadium. The 49ers are led by a pair of men who began their NFL careers in Tampa, General Manager John Lynch and Head Coach Kyle Shanahan. On the field, they are currently led by an undrafted first-year quarterback, Nick Mullens, who has been impressive in his first two starts.
San Francisco has the league's third-best rushing attack to back Mullens up, as well as an emerging star tight end in George Kittle. Mullens has replaced C.J. Beathard, who himself was in the lineup thanks to the season-ending knee injury to Jimmy Garoppolo that robbed the 49ers of the momentum they built with five straight wins to close out 2017. On defense, the 49ers have a young and improving pass-rush force coming up the middle in defensive tackle DeForest Buckner, who has a team-high six sacks. Rookie Fred Warner, a third-round pick, has stepped right into the starting middle linebacker spot and is far and away San Francisco's leading tackler.
That San Fran defense will contend with fourth-year quarterback Jameis Winston, who is getting his starting job back this week from Ryan Fitzpatrick. Winston has a chance to reestablish his upward career momentum over the final six games of the season if he can cut down on the turnovers that have largely negated the advantage of having the NFL's number-one offense.
Winston's performance will likely be the top storyline on Sunday, but here are five other issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-49ers matchup:
1. Which team's turnover woes will end?
From a statistical standpoint, it would seem like something has to give this Sunday when the Buccaneers and 49ers meet. Tampa Bay has an NFL-high 29 giveaways and has committed four turnovers in four of its last five games. The Buccaneers have not had a turnover-free game since a Week One win over New Orleans. However, San Francisco's defense has only forced five turnovers all season, last in the NFL and one fewer than the Buccaneers. The 49ers have failed to get a takeaway in five of their last six games.
So, will the home team finally plug its turnover leak or will the visiting defense finally make some game-altering plays? The answer will probably come down to the young quarterbacks.
One would expect a quarterback making just his third NFL start after rising from third-string on the depth chart to be prone to some mistakes, but Mullens has only tossed two interceptions in his two starts, against four touchdown passes. His excellent completion rate of 70.5% suggests that he is an accurate passer and also that the 49ers' offense features a lot of high-percentage throws, especially ones to Kittle. Mullens has also not taken a single sack in his two starts while his predecessors were brought down 31 times in eight games, so forcing him to fumble one away in the backfield could be tough.
Winston, meanwhile, only had to get his job back in Week 12 because he lost it three weeks earlier after throwing too many interceptions. Winston had seen his interception rate drop to 2.5% last year, a career-best, suggesting he is capable of playing a cleaner game. That's what Tampa Bay needs to turn their league-best 458.5 yards per game into more points and wins.
"Jameis is such a fantastic competitor," said Koetter of Winston's need to make better decisions to reduce giveaways. "He has never met a play he doesn’t think he can make it a good play. I’ve yet to see the perfect game plan or the perfect game called, and we have to give the defense credit in the NFL – they’re pretty good too. They’re paid and coached as well. I think in college Jameis was able to overcome that a lot and in the NFL it’s harder to do. I think that’s something Jameis has improved on, but I think to be at the elite level where he can get to, he’s got to improve in that area."
2. Will the Buccaneers' running game continue to improve?
At one point this season, Tampa Bay had the NFL's number-one ranked passing attack and its second-to-last rushing attack. The Bucs are still just 27th in that latter category (and still first in the former) but they have shown definite improvement in how well they've run the ball and how often they've tried.
Since Week Six, the Buccaneers have averaged 116.2 rushing yards per game, a respectable mark that ranks 16th, right in the middle of the league. Peyton Barber is coming off his best game, a 106-yard effort in the Meadowlands in which he averaged 5.9 yards per carry and scored a touchdown. Tampa Bay had 30 carries in that game, their highest total since that Week One win in New Orleans, and have been making a conscious effort to bring a little more balance to the offense…if only to make the passing game even that much more effective.
Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken praised Barber's ability to get the most out of a carry.
"He’s a powerful, explosive [back]; you rarely see him run out of bounds," said Monken. "I think he’s been given more opportunities. I think the biggest thing is opportunities. That happens with all skill players. Is a player given the opportunity, the receiver given the opportunity to make a play? Is a running back given the opportunities to make plays and showcase his ability? That’s happened the last few weeks. There were other times – we played Atlanta – where it did. It’s been inconsistent, but we’ve tried to be more consistent in the run game and I think that’s helped us."
3. Can Tampa Bay's front line pressure young quarterback Nick Mullens into mistakes?
As noted above, Mullens has been largely mistake-free in his first two starts, which is something that has not surprised Monken, who as head coach at Southern Miss in 2013 inserted the then-freshman quarterback into his starting lineup.
"He’s everything you want in a player and in a quarterback," said Monken. "He’s elite in a lot of areas that are hard to find when it comes to his toughness, mental toughness, his preparation, how much he enjoys playing football and his personality where guys are going to gravitate towards him. He loves playing football and we wouldn’t have done the things we did at Southern Miss without him. He’s made me a better coach."
The Buccaneers will have a hard time coaxing mistakes out of Mullens if they can't first slow down Matt Breida and the 49ers' strong rushing attack. Breida is averaging 5.6 yards per carry and San Francisco's ground game is picking up a robust 133.6 yards per game. The 49ers rank sixth in the NFL in rushing average on first down, a knack that leads to more manageable down-and-distance situations for their young quarterback. The Buccaneers' defense wants to avoid that.
If the Bucs can make Mullens throw more often and put pressure on him when he does – Tampa Bay's defense is averaging just over three sacks per game over the last five weeks – they'll have a shot at forcing some errant throws. However, they may not be able to rattle Mullens just because he's young and inexperienced.
"He’s been able to be pretty poised in his play," said Buccaneers Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "He knows where he’s going with the football. I think they’ve done a good job of directing him as far as that’s concerned. It doesn’t look like he gets rattled as far as that’s concerned – that’s what I mean by the poise. I like the competitiveness I see by the guy."
4. Will the Bucs be able to limit the production of tight end George Kittle?
No matter who's been under center for the 49ers this year, has favorite target has been second-year tight end George Kittle. Kittle ranks third among NFL tight ends with 775 receiving yards and his excellent average of 15.5 yards per catch is built on the second-highest YAC (yards after catch) total among all NFL players, regardless of position.
Kittle is very fast and athletic and Shanahan has done a very good job of devising ways to get the young tight end the ball out in space (such as this one). Considering that the Buccaneers are playing without linebackers Kwon Alexander and Lavonte David as well as starting safety Justin Evans at the moment, it seems highly likely that the 49ers will try to stress the middle of the Bucs' defense with Kittle.
"This guy’s got speed, he’s got power, great hands," said Duffner. "He tends to find open seams and pockets in the coverage. Very productive player – really have a lot of respect for this guy and the production he’s given to the 49ers."
The Buccaneers' defense did fairly well against another athletic young tight end last Sunday against the Giants, allowing Engram just two catches. However, when Engram did get his hands on the ball on a critical fourth-quarter drive he was able to race right down the middle of the field for a 54-yard gain. San Francisco's passing game has not generated a high number of explosive plays outside of Kittle's contributions, so slowing down the speedy tight end will be a high priority.
5. How will the Bucs offense adjust to the loss of O.J. Howard?
Speaking of athletic young tight ends from the 2017 draft, O.J. Howard was drafted by the Buccaneers four spots ahead of Engram and four roundsahead of Kittle. And Howard was in the middle of a breakthrough season too, with 34 catches for 565 yards and five touchdowns, before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury on an awkward tackle against the Giants. His move to injured reserve is the first real hit the Buccaneers' high-powered offense has taken to one of its core contributors.
The Buccaneers are fortunate to have another tight end in Cameron Brate who has proved very productive in the NFL, particularly in the red zone. Brate is likely to step uphis 2018 production (17 catches for 159 yards and three touchdowns) significantly with Howard out, but there will be some other changes to the team's offensive approach, as well.
As noted above, Barber has been getting more opportunities lately and that should continue. Third-down back Jacquizz Rodgers had a 100-yard receiving game two weeks ago and could be utilized more often if the lack of Howard is shifting defensive attention to the outside receivers. And slot receiver Adam Humphries has quietly been the league's 15th-leading receiver in terms of yards since Week Six.
Tampa Bay's offense is still loaded with dynamic weapons, but Howard was one of the best of them and replacing his contributions and his impact on opposing defenses won't be easy.