As we counted down to kickoff last week, our last question about the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' upcoming game in Atlanta was whether or not it would turn into the shootout that the two teams' previous results suggested it would be. And while it took a little while for the Buccaneers to start firing back, the game did eventually produce 928 yards, 56 first downs and 63 points, with the Bucs running one last play from the Falcons' 21 with a chance to win.
This week, the Buccaneers return to Raymond James Stadium to take on the Cleveland Browns, a franchise that appears to be on the rise after three dismal seasons. This one looks like it will come down to the Browns' turnover-happy defense trying to stop the Buccaneers' top-ranked passing attack. The other half of the matchup is a struggling Buccaneers' defense that might be able to right itself against a rookie quarterback. Will those expected storylines come to pass? We'll know in a few hours. In the meantime, here are five specific issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Browns contest:
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at AdventHealth Training Center.
1. What will the Buccaneers' defensive line rotation look with two of its four starters sidelined for Sunday's game?
The Buccaneers promoted linebackers coach Mark Duffner to defensive coordinator on Monday, replacing Mike Smith. In his first game in that role for Tampa Bay, Duffner will be without a couple key pieces up front. Starting left end Vinny Curry and starting defensive tackle Gerald McCoy suffered leg injuries in Atlanta that will keep them out for at least the Bucs' Week Seven contest against the Browns.
The Buccaneers' defensive line had been progressing towards better health with the return from injury of both Vita Vea and Beau Allen, but now it has moved back in the opposite direction. As such, the team is still waiting to be at full strength up front so it can employ the deep rotation it envisioned in the offseason. Rather than fewer snaps across the board, and the greater per-snap efficiency they hoped would come with it, the Buccaneers will now have to lean even more heavily on players like veteran end Jason Pierre-Paul.
Curry's absence will almost surely lead to a significant increase in snaps for both Carl Nassib and William Gholston. The remainder of the depth at end consists of third-year man Noah Spence, who has played just four snaps this year, and rookie Demone Harris, a recent promotion from the practice squad. On the inside, the absence of McCoy would appear to put rookie Vea in line for his first start, next to Allen. The only other defensive tackle on the depth chart is the recently-signed Rakeem Nunez-Roches, who will likely be active for the first time as a Buccaneer. However, the Buccaneers have several ends who can take up snaps on the inside, including Pierre-Paul.
Though Pierre-Paul's value rushing off the edge is clear – he leads the team with 5.0 sacks – he is more than happy to play other spots if the team needs him to do so.
"Me personally, I can play all over the board and I do at times," he said. "In order for me to do that, I need to be very, very, very comfortable. I know I am comfortable, but sometimes I can't do too much. I can't do too much as a football player. The only thing I can tell you is I go hard every play. If I can play all of those positions I will – you know what I mean. Put me all on the line if I could make clones. "
2. Has Tampa Bay's rushing attack finally found its footing after a good showing in Atlanta?
The Buccaneers are obviously having little trouble moving the football, with an offense that ranks second in the NFL in yards per game. However, the rushing attack was alternately ineffective or marginalized during the first quarter of the season. Tampa Bay only topped 100 rushing yards in one of its first four games and did not hit a four-yard average per carry in any of those outings. Then last week in Atlanta, Peyton Barber led a 123-yard charge on the ground as the Bucs averaged 6.2 per tote.
Since the Buccaneers were down big in that Falcons game early, they still only ran the ball 20 times. The 2018 Bucs are almost certain to remain a pass-first team overall, but they would like a little more balance in their attack and will probably run more often as soon as they're in a game that has a less lopsided first-half scoreboard. That could be Sunday against the Browns, who have played almost exclusively very tight games so far.
Cleveland's run defense has not been good, allowing 138.2 yards per game to rank 29th in the NFL. Opponents are averaging nearly seven yards per carry against the Browns. Those numbers suggest an opportunity for Tampa Bay's rushing attack, though the Bucs aren't taking that for granted.
"It's a tough team," said tight end Cam Brate of the Browns. "They're playing with a lot of confidence. Last week didn't really go so great for them but every game before that they were right in it until the end. They've got a bunch of really good players on defense – Myles Garrett, [Emmanuel] Ogbah on the other side – so it will be a tough task for us trying to protect the pocket and get the run game going. But if we play our game we think we'll have a good chance."
Rookie running back Ronald Jones is now in the mix after being inactive for the first three games, but in Atlanta he was used more in the passing game, with three targets (all of them successful) versus one carry. The leader in the backfield continues to be Barber, who had runs of 28 and 24 yards last Sunday.
"He had a really good game," said Koetter. "Peyton is sometimes the forgotten man because we have such depth at wide receiver and depth at tight end and then of course the quarterbacks, so sometimes Peyton gets left out. Up until the game, he just hadn't been getting many opportunities. He got more opportunities, he made the most of them."
3. Can Tampa Bay's beleaguered defense take a step forward against a rookie quarterback?
The Buccaneers struggles on defense have been particularly profound in terms of coverage, which has led to far more big plays than the team expects to surrender. Tampa Bay has allowed 57 passing plays of 20 or more yards, tied for third-most in the NFL, nine of which have gone for touchdowns.
While Buccaneer coaches and players believe those problems stem from their own correctable mistakes, it's also fair to note that the team has faced some prolific passing attacks led by star veteran passers. That includes the Saints' Drew Brees, the Falcons' Matt Ryan and the Steelers' Ben Roethlisberger, not to mention reigning Super Bowl MVP Nick Foles of the Eagles. This week, Tampa Bay will face a rookie quarterback making just his fourth NFL start.
Baker Mayfield, the first-overall pick in this year's draft, has been impressive early but has put up numbers that reflect the typical up-and-down performance one expects from a rookie. On paper, at least, the Bucs' defense appears to have a matchup this week in which it could potentially cause some confusion for an inexperienced passer and perhaps create some turnovers and big plays. Unfortunately (for the Buccaneers at least), the story doesn't always play out as expected. The Buccaneers got a crack at Denver's Paxton Lynch in his first career game in 2016, for example, after knocking starter Trevor Siemian out early. Lynch finished with a passer rating of 94.1 and the Broncos won, 27-7.
Mayfield is likely to do far more than Lynch in his NFL career. Koetter is already impressed with what he's seen from Cleveland's new starter.
"The work that he's put on film – you can see why he was picked what he was picked," said the Bucs' coach. "This guy's going to be a really good quarterback in this league. He can spin it, he can move around, he makes good decisions, he gets the ball out on time, he's tough, he makes plays outside of the pocket, both as a thrower and as a runner. He's impressive so far."
Added Duffner, the new defensive coordinator tasked with helping the Bucs stop Mayfield: "I think that first of all I see a guy that's also energetic. He plays with a lot of enthusiasm, a lot of confidence. As far as what we're going to have to do it comes back to again improving our skills in terms of fundamentals so that we can execute. Shoot, he's a pro football quarterback, NFL quarterback who's a first round pick. Wouldn't be there if he didn't have things pretty special about him. We certainly have a challenge with that in front of us."
4. Will the Bucs be able to win the turnover battle?
In their invigorating, 48-40, win in New Orleans to start the season, the Buccaneers gave everyone a first look at what is proving to be a very explosive offense. Tampa Bay built a 24-point lead and then held on as Drew Brees and the Saints came roaring back. Those two teams put up a combined 1,004 yards and scored five offensive touchdowns each, but what proved to be the difference in the end was Justin Evans' return of a fumble for a touchdown.
Tampa Bay broke even in the turnover battle in its Week Two win over Philadelphia, and then Justin Evans picked off a Ben Roethlisberger pass early in a Week Three Monday night game against the Steelers. That led to a touchdown and an early lead for Tampa Bay…and since then the Buccaneers have committed nine turnovers without taking the ball away once. Given that two of the team's three consecutive losses were decided by one score, it's fair to say that turnover differential is a leading reason the Bucs are 2-3 instead of 4-1.
In the comeback bid that fell short in Atlanta, the Buccaneers had two consecutive drives reach the red zone and they netted just three points out of them. One came up empty when Jameis Winston's attempted pass to Chris Godwin in the back of the end zone deflected off a defender's helmet and sailed high in the air for a very easy interception.
"Jameis will stand in that pocket and make all the throws," said Koetter. "He'll always do that. We're getting beat in the turnover game right now. Right now our defense isn't getting us very many turnovers, so that means we better not be turning it over. That's a team thing, but as far as the giveaway part of it, the quarterback touches it every play. His decision-making has to be pinpoint."
Given the Bucs' recent run, it is perhaps not the most encouraging note that Tampa Bay is about to play the team that leads the NFL in takeaways and is tied for the top spot in turnover differential. Cleveland ranks 28th in the league in overall defense, which is determined by yards allowed, but has created 16 turnovers and has a differential of +7. The Browns have a lot of young talent on their defense thanks to a glut of high draft picks in recent years, and they have an extremely aggressive coordinator in Gregg Williams. The pressure that Cleveland applies up front is a big part of why it has produced so many turnovers.
"They're a very good unit," said Buccaneers tight end O.J. Howard. "They play hard, [have] a lot of talent and it's going to be a physical game. They've got 95, Myles Garrett, and they've got some other guys that can get to the quarterback. I think if we just do our job and block those guys, give Jameis some time to throw the ball, we'll be fine."
Prior to the last three games, the Buccaneers' defense had actually been producing turnovers at a good clip, too. From the start of the 2016 season through the team's 2-0 start this year, the Bucs forced 59 turnovers, which ranked fourth in the NFL in that span.
"Going back to our New Orleans game, in really three of our games this year, that's really been it," said Koetter of the turnover battle. "Maybe more than that, but at least three off the top of my head. If you are in a high-scoring game, those possessions are going to matter a lot and Cleveland is doing a really good job of taking the ball away right now. Third-down defense and takeaways are their best things."
5. Can the Buccaneers gain an advantage on special teams this time?
In a game that went right down to the wire Sunday in the Mercedes-Benz Stadium, special teams proved to be a winning edge for the Falcons in their 34-29 decision against the Buccaneers. Tampa Bay kicker Chandler Catanzaro missed the extra point on the Bucs' game-opening touchdown, which led to a subsequent two-point try that failed. In the final two minutes of the game, the Falcons made the extremely bold decision to let Matt Bryant try a 57-yard field goal with a two-point lead, risking giving the visitors excellent field position, and Bryant nailed it.
Overall, Catanzaro and punter Bryan Anger have done well for the Buccaneers this year. Catanzaro has made six of his seven field goal tries and has consistently blasted his kickoffs deep for touchbacks. Anger has a 42.5-yard gross and a 39.2-yard net and has placed five punts inside the 20 without suffering a touchback. Unfortunately for the Buccaneers, opposing kickers have just done better.
Buccaneer opponents have better marks this year than the Bucs in gross punting (49.4 to 42.5), net punting (43.9 to 39.2) and kickoff return average (22.8 to 14.6). Neither Tampa Bay nor its opponents have done much on punt returns, though several long ones by DeSean Jackson have been nullified by penalties.
And yet, the Bucs could still have an advantage in that phase of the game if numbers hold for them and the Browns. Cleveland punter Britton Colquitt has a net average of just 36.2 yards, and the Browns have missed four of their 14 field goal tries. Browns opponents have outdone them in both halves of the return game, as opposing punt returners are averaging 12.4 yards per try and kickoff returners are getting 26.4 per attempt. That's compared to averages of 7.4 and 20.9 for Cleveland.
As noted at the top, the obvious storylines on Sunday involve a rookie quarterback going against a defense in transition and a prolific Buc passing attack that must avoid falling victim to the Browns' turnover-happy defense. When it comes down to it, though, the kicking game could prove to be the difference in yet another game that comes down to the very end.