The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Arizona Cardinals on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
O.J. Howard. We trust you will already be keeping an eye on Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the most productive pair of wide receivers in the entire NFL. There's a good chance that the Arizona defense will be paying a lot of attention to those two, as well, which could open up the field for a third option in the Bucs' passing attack. Tampa Bay has spent the first half of the season trying to find a consistently productive third target, and now that he's back from his hamstring injury, maybe Howard can be that player in a second-half breakout. The Arizona defense certainly seems as if it's vulnerable to the Bucs' top offensive weapons. The Cardinals are allowing the fourth-most passing yards per game (280.7) and sixth-most yards per pass play (7.77), though it definitely got stronger when cornerback Patrick Peterson returned from his suspension three weeks ago. The Bucs expect Peterson to shadow Evans, but the Cardinals may not have as strong of a counter for Howard down the seams. According to Football Outsiders, Arizona has been the worst team in the NFL at defending tight ends, ranking last in DVOA.
Devin White. White is another player we included in that breakout story linked above after his 12-tackle, two-forced fumble performance in Seattle. Now several weeks removed from his early-season knee injury, White has "turned the corner," according to Head Coach Bruce Arians. Hopefully that means more big plays like the two strips he had on Seattle's Chris Carson. The Buccaneers need a strong game from their rookie MIKE linebacker because they are facing a Cardinals offense with a very good rushing attack and a quarterback who might need to be chased in the open field from time to time. White and QB Kyler Murray were both top-five draft picks this past spring and they both have elite speed for their positions. The Cardinals are getting number-one running back David Johnson back from injury this week and he's a challenge for any defense because he's a dual threat who is one of the top pass-catching backs in the NFL.
Demar Dotson/Donovan Smith. If the Cardinals are going to get pressure on quarterback Jameis Winston, it will probably be off the edges. Arizona has one of the best edge rushers in the NFL in Chandler Jones, who is already just a half-sack shy of his fifth straight double-digit sack season. In the offseason, Arizona picked up longtime Raven Terrell Suggs to pair with Jones and those two have accounted for 14.5 of Arizona's 23 sacks so far this season. The Cardinals' defense is just 21st in the league in sacks-per-pass-attempt (7.08%) overall, but the Bucs' two starting tackles will still have their hands full on Sunday with Jones and Suggs. Winston threw 44 passes last Sunday in Seattle but was sacked just twice, both by blitzing linebackers. Smith and Dotson helped provide a clean pocket for much of the day and Winston had a strong outing. Both Dotson (hamstring) and Smith (thumb) dealt with injuries during the week of practice but they've been cleared to play and the Bucs need them to control the action up front.
Jamel Dean. Dean was thrown into the fire last Sunday, seeing his first extended action on defense only after starting cornerback Carlton Davis sustained a hip injury in warmups in Seattle. It was an eye-opening experience for the third-round rookie, who had some impressive plays (including four passes defensed) and some others that looked like the expected results from a very green NFL player. Though there were some ups and downs in Dean's performance, Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said the experience helped him a lot mentally and will "probably fuel his career." That experience will hopefully help Dean this week because he's going to be needed again with Davis ruled out for the game against Arizona. Like Seattle, the Cardinals have a quarterback with the ability to escape the pocket and extend plays, which always puts more stress on defenders in coverage. Dean also has top-level speed, plus the size to win battles with receivers on contested catches.
Jason Pierre-Paul. The Bucs hoped their veteran pass rusher could make an immediate impact on their defense when he came off the reserve/non-football injury list after missing months with a neck injury. He has. Pierre-Paul has 1.5 sacks through just two games played, which is nearly identical to the rate at which he was taking quarterbacks down last year when he had 12.5 in 16 games. He obviously kept himself in great shape during his layoff and hasn't had any trouble adjusting to the action, playing 71% of the defensive snaps in his first game back and all but three of them last week in Seattle. That latter busy day was more than anticipated and caused by the first-half injuries that knocked Carl Nassib and Anthony Nelson out of the rotation. The Buccaneers signed Sam Acho and Kahzin Daniels to have some options to get Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett rest this Sunday, but it's still a good bet that Pierre-Paul will be on the field for a great majority of the afternoon.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 30/29. That's the number of times the two starting quarterbacks in Sunday's game have been sacked this year. Despite his incredible speed and quickness, Kyler Murray has been dropped 29 times; the only NFL quarterback who's been taken down more often is Winston. After a two-game run against Carolina and New Orleans in which the Bucs allowed 11 sacks, the protection has been better for Winston in the last two outings. Similarly, Murray was sacked 20 times in the Cardinals first four games but just nine in the last five. The Buccaneers' pass rush has to be disciplined in its pursuit of Murray because if he breaks containment he can be dangerous in a manner similar to Russell Wilson, and Murray already has 313 yards and two touchdowns on the ground this season.
· 43.4%/32.7%. Overall, Tampa Bay's offense has been a little below league average in converting third downs this season, ranking 20th at 38.1%. Over the last two weeks, it has improved in that regard, converting on 13 of 29 tries (44.8%). However, there is an unfortunate split before and after halftime in those numbers, and that's true of the entire season. In the first halves of their eight games, the Buccaneers have converted on 43.4% of their third-down attempts, but it drops to 32.7% in the second halves. As the Buccaneers seek to be the ones making the game-deciding plays in the fourth quarter, the ability to keep last-chance drives alive will be important.
· 14.6%/6.6%. Arians has praised Arizona's rushing attack on several occasions this week and indeed the Cardinals are averaging 120.6 yards per game on the ground and 4.98 yards per tote. That latter number ranks fifth in the league and has been achieved in part by avoiding losses in the backfield. The Cardinals' ballcarriers have only been stopped for a loss on 6.6% of their runs, which is the third-lowest percentage in the league. That said, Arizona hasn't faced the Buccaneers and their league-leading rush defense yet. That defense is allowing just 3.4 yards per carry and has been very good at stopping backs for lost yardage. Tampa Bay has forced a loss on 14.6% of the runs against them, the second-highest average in the league behind the Jets.
· 0. That's the number of fumbles the Cardinals have lost through nine games this season, as the only team remaining who has not turned the ball over on a fumble. Arizona has barely even lost its grip on the ball this season, only fumbling twice, both of which it recovered. However, Cardinals players will meet Lavonte David and a Bucs defense that is good at prying the ball loose this Sunday. The Bucs have forced 18 fumbles this year and recovered eight of them, tying for fifth in that latter category. Over the last five seasons, the Buccaneers have an NFL-leading 53 recoveries of opponents' fumbles. David alone has 12 forced fumbles and 11 fumble recoveries in that same span.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 10 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· Last Sunday in Seattle, 94 of the 105 offensive snaps taken by Buccaneer tight ends belonged to blocking specialist Antony Auclair and first-year man Tanner Hudson. Cam Brate, fighting through a ribs injury, had 11 snaps and O.J. Howard was sidelined by a hamstring injury. Now, however, Auclair is on injured reserve and Hudson is likely to see his share of snaps go down with both Howard and Brate practicing in full this past week. Those latter two would likely be the starters if the Bucs open in 12 personnel.
· The Cardinals have had a revolving door of an offensive backfield in recent weeks, with injuries alternately taking down David Johnson and Chase Edmonds. Kenyan Drake arrived in a trade with the Miami Dolphins and, with Johnson and Edwards still out, had 162 yards from scrimmage in his Arizona debut. Johnson is expected back this week and would likely regain his starting spot, and though Edmonds is still out the Cardinals will have a nice one-two punch in Johnson and Drake.
· Jason Pierre-Paul has been back in action for two weeks and, as noted above, has played a high percentage of the Bucs' defensive snaps in those games. But he hasn't yet started, after opening all 16 games last year in his first season with the Buccaneers. Given the snap distribution, that's a mostly meaningless distinction, but in any case Pierre-Paul is likely to return to the starting lineup this week with Carl Nassib ruled out for the game. Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett will be backed up by newcomers to the active roster Sam Acho and Kahzin Daniels, presuming each one is active on game day.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE CARDINALS
Arizona's offense is a balanced one, ranking 14th in rushing and 19th in passing, and as noted above it has not hurt itself with turnovers. Murray, the rookie passer, has thrown only four picks in 316 passes and the Cardinals have the fifth-lowest interception rate in the NFL. The Cardinals' defense has been less effective, ranking 27th in points allowed and 30th in yards allowed, but it does boast one of the league's best edge rushers in Chandler Jones and an elite matchup cornerback in Patrick Peterson. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
With the immovable front of Ndamukong Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston clogging up the middle, the Buccaneers would seem to have a good shot at stopping David Johnson, the Cardinals' top running back who is returning from an ankle injury this week. And perhaps they will make it tough for Johnson to run between the tackles, as they have for nearly every opposing back this season. However, the advantage could swing the other way when the Cardinals throw Johnson a swing pass or line him up in the slot and have him run routes by receivers. Since the start of the 2016 season, Johnson has averaged 54.9 receiving yards per game, which is the most by a running back in the NFL in that span, even more than Le'Veon Bell (51.3). Actually, both Johnson and Drake will be challenges for the Bucs in the passing game, as noted earlier this week by Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles. Said Bowles: "David can catch the ball like a receiver. He runs receiver routes, as well as Kenyan Drake does. In the run game they can play inside and outside as far as running the ball. Outside they can kill you like a wide receiver, so they create mismatch problems in that regard."
Arizona's top two defensive players, previously discussed above, are edge rusher Chandler Jones and shutdown corner Patrick Peterson. Peterson has made the Pro Bowl following each of his first eight seasons while Jones has two Pro Bowl nods and a first-team All-Pro selection in the past four seasons. While the Cardinals are likely to see if Peterson can slow down the freight train that is Mike Evans, Jones could be the more disruptive of the two if he can get into the Buccaneers' backfield. Not only is he one sack behind the Bucs' Shaq Barret in the league rankings right now, but Jones is also tied with Barrett (and three others) for the NFL lead with four forced fumbles. Like the Bucs' Jason Pierre-Paul, Jones is one of just nine players in the league who have recorded at least 70 sacks and at least 100 tackles for loss since 2010. Jones rushes more often from the left end of Arizona's front, which means he's going to be seeing a lot of right tackle Demar Dotson. That will be an important battle to watch on Sunday.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On trying to contain Arizona's mobile rookie quarterback, Kyler Murray:
"I think when you have a quarterback that's this mobile, first and [foremost], you've got to contain him and you've got to get him on the ground. You hope to confuse him, but again, it's a matter of just getting him on the ground and not letting him win on broken plays – make him beat us with the correct play. They're running the ball extremely well. David Johnson's a hell of a back. Kenyan Drake – I mean, they've got runners. When they spread you, you've got to be able to stop the run too."