The 6-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will face the 4-10 Arizona Cardinals in the NFL's first-ever Christmas triple-header on Sunday, December 25. The Bucs will continue their quest for an NFC South title as the Cardinals face another roster shift at quarterback. Tampa Bay currently holds a one-game lead over the rest of the division and the crown jewel may very well hinge on the Bucs' Week 17 and 18 games against Carolina and Atlanta, respectively. After a pair of discouraging losses to both the 49ers and Bengals, the Bucs will strive to get back on track against a struggling Cardinals' team. After boasting their best half of football against Cincinnati in Week 15 during the first two frames, the Bucs committed four costly turnovers in 11 plays during the second half that aided the Bengals' victory. Meanwhile, Arizona has lost four-straight and six of their previous seven contests, eliminating them from playoff contention. A plethora of injuries and personnel changes have led to the team's downturn. Despite the Cardinals' current positioning and a third-string quarterback being thrust into action, the club still boasts a star-studded cast including DeAndre Hopkins, James Conner, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown, J.J. Watt and Budda Baker. Tampa Bay's focus is on the final stretch run and their playoff aspirations, beginning with a stop in Glendale on Christmas Day.
4 Stats That Matter
- 26.6. The Cardinals have given up the most points in the NFL in 2022 at 26.6 points per game. Their defense ranks 32nd in red zone, 25th on third down and 25th in sack percentage.
- 34. The Buccaneers have allowed 34-plus points in two consecutive games (35 at San Francisco, 34 versus Cincinnati) after allowing 18.3 points per game in Weeks 1-13 (fifth-fewest in the NFL).
- 74.3. The Buccaneers have averaged 74.3 rush yards per game in 2022 (fewest in the NFL) and the fewest by Tampa Bay in franchise history. The sum is the lowest by any team since the 2019 Dolphins (72.3).
- 3. J.J. Watt had three sacks for the Cardinals in Week 15 at Broncos. He has 9.5 for the season, needing just 0.5 for his first double-digit sack season since 2018.
3 Lineup Notes
- Vita Vea (calf), Carl Nassib (pectoral), Jamel Dean (toe), Donovan Smith (foot) and Genard Avery (abdomen/oblique) will not play on Sunday, according to Head Coach Todd Bowles. (Avery was placed on injured reserve on Friday.) The Bucs could get pro Bowl right tackle Tristan Wirfs back from an ankle injury this week, however, their line will still be without a starter. Left tackle Donovan Smith was among those ruled out and if Wirfs is back in the lineup, Josh Wells – who has started the last three games at right tackle for Wirfs – could move to the other end of the line in place of injured Smith.
- Tampa Bay will wait until Sunday to make the final ruling on Antoine Winfield Jr. after he aggravated his ankle injury against the Bengals last week. Winfield has not practiced during the week leading up to Sunday's Christmas showdown. His inclusion on Sunday would bolster the secondary in facing the Cardinals and a mobile quarterback.
- For the Cardinals, three players were ruled out including defensive lineman Zach Allen (hand), quarterback Colt McCoy (concussion) and cornerback Byron Murphy Jr. (back). Additionally, five players were listed as questionable for the Week 16 holiday clash: Kelvin Beachum, Marquise Brown, Max Garcia, Antonio Hamilton and Charles Washington.
2 Challenges Presented by the Cardinals
On the offensive side of the football, the Cardinals have suffered misfortune in 2022. Starting quarterback Kyler Murray tore his ACL, DeAndre Hopkins missed the season's first six games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, Marquise "Hollywood" Brown missed five games due to a foot injury, tight end Zach Ertz was placed on injured reserve with a torn ACL/MCL and the offensive line has undergone nine different combinations – hindering continuity. Trace McSorley will start under center on Sunday and, despite a revolving door at many skill positions due to the injury bug, McSorley will have a loaded arsenal around him. If opponents allocate resources to contend with the likes of Hopkins and Brown, then the Cardinals can dump the ball off to their downhill, battering-ram style runner in James Conner working against a light box. With Hopkins' savviness on routes to bait defenders and change the pace, along with Brown's prowess as a yards-after-catch receiver with home-run speed, defenses are spread out. Setting the edge, along with stout coverage in man-to-man will be crucial for the Bucs on Sunday. If an outside linebacker crashes in, that leaves an exposed lane for McSorley to exploit.
"So, we look at it as the concept as they spread you out to run the ball, so when they put all those wideouts, we've got to match them up," Head Coach Todd Bowles described. "Now, you're light in the box with a mobile quarterback, so the thing is, they're really going to do what they do. It isn't like we're going to have to face a schematic change – they're going to do what they do. You know, [McSorley] might not be as fast as [Kyler] Murray, but they can run the same play."
The Cardinals heavily utilize up-tempo, hurry-up mode on offense, which puts added stress on defenses. Up-tempo limits the opponent's ability to make substitutions. If the offense moves to line up with urgency it drastically changes the defense's ability to rotate players in and out of the game. If the offense does substitute, then by rule the defense must be allowed to do so as well. The Cardinals' can use their base 11 personnel players to play multiple positions, allowing them to hurry to the line of scrimmage on third-and-short and have play-calls designed for those specific moments, whereas the defense cannot sub to a passing down or short-yardage package. Eliminating the defense's ability to build packages with specific players for certain scenarios is a weapon for spread offenses. In addition to limiting packages, it also limits the defense's ability to communicate pre-snap. The Buccaneers will have to be disciplined on Sunday.
Regardless of the statistical numbers, Arizona's defense features star-caliber players at the front and back end, including defensive end J.J. Watt and versatile safety Budda Baker. Watt relentlessly chased down Brett Rypien to the tune of 3.0 sacks in last week's loss to Denver, giving him 9.5 on the year. Baker leads the team with 102 tackles and is tied for the team lead with two interceptions. Defensive Coordinator Vance Joseph dials up creative blitzes/stunt packages to complement the skillset of both Watt and Baker to create disadvantageous matchups for offenses. Watt can line up anywhere along the defensive front with a variety of pass rush moves, showcasing power to run through tackles/guards and the agility/hand-strength to go around the edge. Baker has a knack for gaining leverage and is multi-faceted. Whether blitzing off the edge, rushing from the A-gap or B-gap, or covering a receiver or a tight end, he is proficient. Baker can line up as the single-high safety and as a nickel with man-coverage skills.
"They're very athletic – they have a lot of speed and they're very opportunistic," Bowles stated. "They can come from anywhere, obviously. Vance can blitz them from anywhere on the field. They're pretty athletic up front with J.J. and then Budda on the back end. They've got two very good linebackers they drafted the last two years that try to come at you on the edge. They cause some consternation if you're not on your toes. We've got to make sure we're sharp on the blitz pickups and make sure we understand we see everybody on the field. They don't just blitz one or two guys – all 11 guys are options."
1 Key Thought from Todd Bowles
On the Cardinals' offense without Kyler Murray:
"They have very good skill guys – they're very fast. Obviously, Hopkins has been doing it for a long time – [he's] one of the best in the league, he's got outstanding hands and he competes. They've got 'Hollywood' Brown, they've got Robbie [Anderson] so they've got tons of speed outside. Connor does a heck of a job for them – blocking, catching, and running the football – so he's kind of a triple-threat, so to speak. They've got [Trey] McBride they just drafted – we loved him coming out of college – he was a great player there. They've got a huge offensive line. As far as quarterback, whether it was Kyler, whether it was Colt or whether it's McSorley – they kind of run their system. All three can run the football – Kyler may be faster than everybody because he had elite speed, but everybody else can run the ball as well. They throw it just the same, so we've got to prepare for everything."