The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take their high-powered passing attack to Paul Brown Stadium on Sunday to face the Cincinnati Bengals, a team coming off two losses to similarly high-flying attacks in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. Of course, the Bengals have a potent offense as well centered around quarterback Andy Dalton, running back Joe Mixon and wide receivers A.J. Green and Tyler Boyd. Tampa Bay's defense showed significant improvement last week under new defensive coordinator Mark Duffner but will face a stiff challenge to prove that wasn't just a one week spike based on emotion.
That, in fact, is the first issue we'll look at below as we count down five of them while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Bengals contest:
1. Can the Buccaneers' defense prove that its most recent outing is more indicative of its talent level than the previous games?
The Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense limited the Cleveland Browns to 305 yards of offense last Sunday despite the game going nearly an entire extra quarter. It is legitimately hard for long-time NFL fans to wrap their heads around the fact that 305 yards allowed is a very good day for just about any defense. The league's offensive explosion is creating unprecedented numbers, and the average single-game yardage total for an NFL team is 363.7 through the first seven weeks of this season.
Before that game, the Buccaneers had been giving up 440 yards per outing. The most obvious difference to the naked eye in Game Six was much tighter coverage in the secondary, with fewer mental and communication errors and thus much fewer explosive plays allowed. Tampa Bay allowed just two completions of 20 or more yards to the Browns, and none longer than 23; they had been averaging nearly five allowed per game before that. The Bucs also only allowed three third-down conversions in 14 attempts in that game; their first five opponents converted 42.9% of their tries.
"One of the objectives for every team in the NFL is eliminate explosive plays, big chunk yard plays, if you will," said Mark Duffner, who was promoted to defensive coordinator before the Cleveland game, replacing Mike Smith. "Again, our third down defense stood out. We got pressure on the quarterback, sacks. Lavonte [David] getting the takeaway – we need more, but was a critical play for us on one of the two fourth-down stops. There was a lot of positive things right now and that's attribute to the players and the coaches in terms of everybody preparing to do that. That is more like what we want to look like and what we work hard to put on the field."
That David play that pleased Duffner acted like a turnover – a fumble that changed possession of the ball – but it was technically a fourth-down stop and a turnover on downs. Still, that's the sort of play Buccaneer defenders need to make on the ball, and an uptick in turnovers would be very helpful in making this defensive improvement stick. Tampa Bay's defense forced six turnovers in the first two games, both wins, and had one at the very beginning of a Week Three Monday night matchup with Pittsburgh, but hasn't had one since. The team's lone turnover last Sunday, which set up the game-winning field goal in overtime, was produced by the special teams.
One way that Duffner and the rest of the staff is trying to put the players in position to force more turnovers is to simplify the coverage options to some extent. Duffner thinks that helped against the Browns.
"Certainly, when you put together a plan, you try to take advantage of the strengths of your players," he said. "The objective is – you'll always hear coaches saying, 'We're going to play fast. We want to play fast.' Well, how do you go about doing that? You've got to take inventory in putting together a plan and putting together a practice plan that allows the defense or the respective side of the ball to be able to execute it in a high fashion and that's what we talked about in the very beginning – this game is about execution and how do you get to that point."
2. How will the Buccaneers adjust to the absence of middle linebacker Kwon Alexander?
The Buccaneers managed that strong effort against the Browns even without starting linemen Gerald McCoy and Vinny Curry in the lineup. Just before halftime on Sunday the defense was dealt another serious blow, and one that is permanent in terms of this season. Middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, a team captain and clear emotional leader on the field, suffered an ACL tear and was subsequently placed on injured reserve.
The first part of replacing Alexander – which is most certainly a difficult task – is to decide who exactly is going to take over his starting position. That would be Adarius Taylor, the team's special teams captain, who had been starting on the strong side. That strongside job now goes to third-year man Devante Bond, who just returned to the team two weeks ago. Rookie Jack Cichy might have gotten the call but he also tore an ACL against the Bears.
It's going to take more than rearranging the depth chart to make up for Alexander's absence, though.
"You don't just replace Kwon Alexander," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You do in the sense in that the next man up is expected to go in there and give his best, but that's all he can do is give his best. He's not going to be the same as Kwon. That doesn't mean they're not going to make big plays, but there's also a learning curve. Kwon's been our middle linebacker for a long time. We'll have to make some adjustments. There will be some growing pains, just like putting those new DBs in there."
Lineup questions still exist? Will Taylor also join Lavonte David in the nickel package? Will the team employ any other sub packages that include one or more of linebackers Riley Bullough, Cameron Lynch and the just-signed Kevin Minter? Are Taylor and Bond relatively secure in those starting spots or would the team turn quickly to another option?
Koetter was asked just one part of this, if Taylor is now a three-down player, on Friday but understandably declined to elaborate. The Buccaneers obviously do have a plan for how to deploy their linebackers, and it could be simple or complicated, but they're not going to share it ahead of time.
One thing we do know is that David, who plays on the weak side and stays on the field for every defensive snap, will have the coach-to-player radio in his helmet, so he'll be taking over play-calling duties from Alexander. Fortunately, David has handled that role in the past, and Koetter says that helps in the transition.
"Yeah, very much so, a guy whose called it," he said. "Adarius has called it before, too, in preseason, but Lavonte will be a big help in that area."
3. Will the offense limit its turnovers and thus do a better job of turning the league's top yardage machine into more points?
Tampa Bay ranks first in the NFL in overall net yards and net passing yards per game and is on pace to become just the fourth team in league history to top 7,000 yards. However, the Buccaneers are eighth in points per game, which is good but not necessarily commensurate with their ability to move the football. The biggest issue is the team's 15 turnovers, a rate of 2.5 per game.
"The best way to [fix] that is to turn the ball over less," said tight end Cam Brate of the yards/points discrepancy. "Yeah, we have gotten a lot of yards but we definitely haven't played our best yet. Hopefully we can kind of put it all together and make those yards count a little bit more. Stats are cool and everything, but if it's not translating into wins it doesn't mean anything. It's more of a side story, I guess."
The Buccaneers won the Cleveland game despite having a -3 turnover ratio, which is an extremely rare accomplishment. Fortunately, this Sunday's game is against an opponent that hasn't demonstrated quite the same propensity for taking the ball away. Cleveland came into last week's game as the NFL's leading producer of turnovers and remained there after the game, with 20. The Bengals, on the other hand, are tied for 19 in that category, with nine. They will also be missing several key defenders, including linebackers Nick Vigil and Vontaze Burfict and cornerback Darqueze Dennard.
4. Can the Buccaneers' sixth-ranked rush defense slow down powerful Cincinnati running back Joe Mixon?
The Bengals will be without half of their impressive backfield duo, as Giovani Bernard has been ruled out for Sunday's game. However, second-year runner Joe Mixon appears to be picking up steam a few weeks removed from a minor knee procedure. The 6-1, 220-pound Mixon is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and has also been a factor in the passing game with 16 catches.
"Now that he's healthy, you can really see that he can do everything," said Koetter. "He can cram it, he can cut it back, he can out-run you, he's good in the pass game. I mean, he's really a complete back. They've had injuries at running back between him and [Bernard]; they've had some injuries but Mixon is definitely somebody that's got our full attention."
Tampa Bay's defense has done a good job against the run this season, ranking sixth with 90.0 yards allowed per game and ninth with 4.00 yards allowed per carry. Early in the season, those low rushing totals were somewhat attributable to a couple of lopsided outings in which opponents either abandoned the run game when down or simply didn't need to go to it when building up a big lead. Even in some recent close games, however, the Bucs have been reasonably good at stopping the run.
Still, Mixon might be the most powerful back the Buccaneers have faced to this point.
"Their running back, Mixon, my gosh," said Duffner. "We talk often times about front side and back side in terms of pursuit, well in this game, everything is front side. This guy, wherever he goes, he's making moves and he's got acceleration. He'll be a great challenge to out pursuit on defense and also as a receiver."
5. Will a potentially rainy day cause the pass-heavy Buccaneers to lean more on running backs Peyton Barber and Ronald Jones?
Tampa Bay's rushing attack, meanwhile, has been something of a secondary plotline to the league's most dangerous passing offense. The 2018 Buccaneers are so loaded with pass-catchers and so effective at moving the ball through the air that they will likely never be a truly "balanced" offense, but coordinator Todd Monken would like to run it more. The Buccaneers are currently running the ball on 35.8% of their snaps, which is the 24th-lowest ratio in the league, and it has been artificially spiked the last two games by 15 Jameis Winston scrambles.
"First of all, that's not ideal," said Monken. "That's not ideal to want to put yourself in that position. We do talk balance and that is about all of your skill players touching the ball. I think we've done a good job of that. I think a lot of our skill guys have touched the ball and have added to what we've done offensively, but we've got to be able to run the ball better and more often. We've got to be able to not turn it over and score touchdowns in the red zone. Some of those areas we're doing a fantastic job of and others we've got to do a better job of."
The Buccaneers may need to keep it on the ground a bit more Sunday if the forecast for rain on Sunday in Cincinnati proves accurate. The good news is that lead back Peyton Barber, who sustained an ankle injury against Cleveland and wasn't practicing when the week began, has progressed to the point that he is definitely ready to play in Cincinnati. He and rookie Ronald Jones will continue to shoulder the load; Barber remains well ahead in terms of expected carries but the Bucs are gradually increasing Jones' role.
"He continues to get better," said Monken. "Again, he needs to practice and he's getting that – he's getting more and more reps. We're gaining more and more confidence with him. He's got to dial in some of the little things that come up when you're playing the best in the world and I think he's doing a better job of that. He's only going to get better because he does have talent."