The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Indianapolis Colts 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
Ndamukong Suh. Six different Buccaneers have accounted for the team's 11-sack outburst over the past two weeks, and Suh isn't one of them. However, his presence has been a huge part of that pass-rush improvement as he has swallowed up double teams and helped create havoc in the middle and one-on-one opportunities on the edges. Head Coach Bruce Arians said on Wednesday that, while Suh has been playing really well all season, he has been "lights-out" over the past month, and he does have a sack, five quarterback hits and two fumble recoveries in that span. Suh and his 347-pound partner in the middle of the line, Vita Vea, are going to create quite a collision inside this Sunday against Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly, perhaps the best left guard/center combo in the NFL. Suh is hard to move in the trenches but Nelson is capable of moving just about anybody in the league. Neither is likely to back down from what should be an intense battle.
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Mike Evans. The third-leading receiver in the NFL in terms of yards, Evans had three games of 180 or more yards in the first half of the season but so far has yet to crack 100 in any of the Bucs' four second-half games. He's still been quite productive, with at least 50 yards in all of those contests, but he's been shut out of the end zone in that span. Last week's win in Jacksonville marked just the fourth time all season in which neither Evans nor Chris Godwin has cracked 100 yards, but in that game Breshad Perriman and O.J. Howard stepped up with 148 combined yards. The Colts' defense has been pretty good this season, ranking 11th with 226.9 yards per game, but Tampa Bay's passing attack has rarely been shut down this year. Will the Indianapolis defense try to take Evans out of the game, as several of the Bucs' opponents have done this year, and will it succeed in doing so, particularly with cornerbacks Kenny Moore and Rock Ya-Sin in possible doubt for Sunday? It just feels like it's time for Evans to break out in a big way again.
Devin White. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles this week on White, the Bucs' rookie linebacker: "He's the exact guy we thought we drafted. Once the injuries got past and he got caught back up with the system and he's playing faster, he's exactly what we saw in college and we're happy to have him." When a player is drafted with the fifth-overall pick, that means his new team expected to get a rare talent. If White is exactly what the Bucs expected, he is a playmaker who can affect the game at every level, patrolling large areas of the field, making an impact in coverage and even getting into the backfield. Indeed, White has begun to do all those things, with 46 tackles, 2.5 sacks, five quarterback hits, an interception, two passes defensed, a fumble recovery and a touchdown in just the last five weeks. As Bowles noted, White was slowed by a knee injury suffered 11 days into the season and it took him a bit to get back up to speed in the system after his return. Now, however, he is emerging as the type of defender his team expects to make a big play or two every game. White will be one to watch every week.
O.J. Howard. The third-year tight end had a season-high five catches last week and contributed 61 big yards, including a 25-yard grab that came one play before Peyton Barber's 15-yard touchdown run to open the scoring. As Ronde Barber explained in this week's Film Session, that play was a good example of the route-running skills and size mismatches that make Howard such a potentially dangerous weapon in the Bucs' offense. Howard's production in his third season hasn't been as high as was expected but he could be a key figure down the stretch if opposing teams put too much effort into trying to slow down Evans and Godwin. Howard's per-catch average in the Jacksonville game was 12.2 yards, which doesn't look particularly impressive for a player who led all qualifying tight ends last year with 16.6 yards per catch. However, that's a bit misleading because one of those receptions came on a play in which he didn't even run a route, as a pass deflected in the backfield went right to him and he was pulled down for a six-yard loss. Otherwise, Howard averaged 16.8 yards on his catches, which is exactly the type of production the Buccaneers want to get out of him.
Carl Nassib. The Buccaneers' 11-sack explosion over the past two weeks coincide with Nassib's return from a groin injury, and that's probably not a coincidence. Nassib has two of those sacks, as well as a forced fumble, and his presence has made it tougher for opposing teams to double-team Shaq Barrett and/or Jason Pierre-Paul. While those three can rotate in and keep each other fresh, they can also all be on the field at the same time as Nassib is capable of rushing from the inside while the other two come off the edges. Nassib is a high-motor player who can help others finish a play when havoc breaks out in the backfield. He is second on the team with 5.0 sacks, which he has recorded in essentially nine games of play (he missed most of the Seattle game in which he was initially hurt). A waiver claim from Cleveland just before the start of the 2018 season, Nassib gave the Bucs surprising production, finishing second on the team with 6.5 sacks. He's proving in 2019 that that season was no fluke.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 49/97. Tampa Bay's run defense has been very good in 2019, and if opponents have wanted to move the chains they've generally had to do it through the air. The 49 rushing first downs the Buccaneers have allowed are the fewest against any defense this year. However, this Sunday's game will definitely pit a Colts strength against that Buccaneers strength. The Colts' fourth-ranked rushing attack has produced 97 rushing first downs, which is second only to the Baltimore Ravens. Baltimore, of course, features a dual-threat quarterback who has produced a lot of those first downs. The Colts' offensive line is as good as any in the league in producing first-down opportunities for their running backs.
· 57.9%/29.5%/52.5%/25.6%. On the highest level, third downs when Indianapolis has the ball is going to be another case of strength on strength Sunday. The Colts have converted 44.2% of their third downs this year, the ninth-best rate in the league. Tampa Bay's defense, meanwhile, has allowed the third-lowest third-down conversion rate at 33.6%. But if one breaks down those numbers a little bit more, it becomes clear that what type of third downs the Colts face is going to be a key issue. On third-down tries needing 2-6 yards, the Colts have converted 57.9% of the time, which is fourth-best in the NFL. That has not been the sweet spot for Tampa Bay's defense, which has allowed a conversion rate of 52.5% in that range to rank 23rd. However, move it beyond six yards and the advantage swings far back to the Buccaneers' side. In the 7 to 10-yard range, the Colts' offense ranks 24th (29.5%) and the Bucs' defense ranks seventh (25.6%). And it's been a team effort. At least four different players had at least one sack in each of those two games, something the Bucs' defense had not accomplished in any of its first 10 outings.
· 5.14/10.28. Though NFL Defensive Player of the Year Candidate Shaq Barrett burst out of the gates with nine sacks in the first four weeks, the Buccaneers' defense has actually ranked near the bottom of the league in sacks per pass play for much of the season. It's been a different story the past two weeks as Tampa Bay's front has turned up the heat with 11 sacks and 23 quarterback hits in a pair of victories. The Bucs' sacks-per-pass-play rate through 10 games was 5.14% but they have exactly doubled that to 10.28% in the last two weeks, which ranks seventh in the NFL in that span.
· 542/57/44. Four-time Pro Bowler T.Y. Hilton has 542 career receptions but he is unlikely to play against the Buccaneers on Sunday due to his calf injury. The injury bug has bit a lot of Colts' pass-catchers this season but one player who has stepped up is second-year man Zach Pascal, who has 57 career catches. However, without Hilton, Indianapolis will field a very green receiving corps on Sunday. The other four options besides Pascal – Parris Campbell, Ashton Dulin, Marcus Johnson and Chad Williams – have a combined 44 career receptions.
View some of the top photos of the Bucs lifting before the Colts matchup on Sunday in Week 14.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· How the Buccaneers' secondary is arranged on Sunday will have a lot to do with the shoulder of rookie CB Jamel Dean. Dean has practiced all week but hasn't had to take or deliver any hits, which is the obvious concern for a player with a painful shoulder. If Dean is available, the Bucs will be able to play him on the outside with Sean Murphy-Bunting moving into the slot. If not, the Bucs could turn to Ryan Smith again to play outside in the nickel package, as they did for much of last Sunday's game in Jacksonville, or they could use safety Mike Edwards in the slot. If cornerback M.J. Stewart returns from his three-game absence due to a knee injury, he could factor into the answer in the slot as well.
· It looks likely that the Colts' offense will have number-one running back Marlon Mack back after he missed two games with a hand fracture. The receiving corps, however, is still shaken up. Chester Rogers was placed on injured reserve and leading wideout T.Y. Hilton is unsure if he'll play again this season, let alone Sunday. The Colts may get rookie Parris Campbell back in the mix, however.
· If second-year guard Alex Cappa can't play due to his elbow injury – which seems likely given his lack of practice this week – veteran Earl Watford will step in again at right guard, as he did in Weeks Six and Seven. Josh Wells would probably still be one of the two active reserves on the O-Line, and then Bucs would choose between Jerald Hawkins and Aaron Stinnie as the other backup. If Stinnie gets the call, he could see his first action as a Buccaneer on Sunday.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE COLTS
The Colts have committed to running the football in 2019 and have done well, averaging 139.0 yards per game to rank fourth in the NFL. Indianapolis has called a run on 47.3% of their snaps this season, which is the fourth-highest percentage in the NFL as well. That rushing attack may get starter Marlon Mack back this week from his hand injury but has also operated well with Jonathan Williams, Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines in the backfield. On defense, the Colts are a disciplined and technically-sound crew that has been stingy in the red zone and is 12th in the NFL in sacks per pass attempt, led by veteran end Justin Houston. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
A big, bruising offensive line is the engine of the Colts' offense and probably the best front the Buccaneers' defense has faced so far this season. At the center of that line is the league's best guard-center combination in Quenton Nelson and Ryan Kelly. Arians calls Nelson the "tone-setter" for the Colts and showed his linemen tape of defenders being embarrassed by the mauling guard. Tampa Bay's defense has been outstanding against the run almost without fail this season, and is coming off a game in which it allowed only 49 yards to the Jaguars and powerful back Leonard Fournette. Tampa Bay has previously put the brakes on such other backs as Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley and Derrick Henry, but the Colts' success with a variety of backs demonstrates that it's the line, not the ballcarrier, that is biggest problem here. Vita Vea, Ndamukong Suh and Will Gholston have collectively had a fantastic season clogging up the middle, but it will be a serious battle to do that again on Sunday.
The Colts' defense revolves around second-year linebacker Darius Leonard, who was a first-team all-pro choice and the league's leading tackler as a rookie in 2018. Leonard does it all, and while he's the team's best weapon against the run and also tied for the Colts' lead in interceptions, the Buccaneers must also be aware of his occasional bursts into the backfield. Leonard had seven sacks as a rookie and he's got five more in nine games played this season. Tampa Bay ballcarriers also must be on high alert in terms of ball security when they're in Leonard's vicinity, as he has a Lavonte David-type of ability to get the ball out. He has six forced fumbles in just 24 NFL games played. Leonard plays the WILL position in Indy's 4-3 front and he's the prototype for the position, being able to make plays all over the field and having an impact on the run game, in coverage and on the pass rush.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On what concerns him about the Colts' offense:
"What worries me is their running game. Their offensive line is probably the best we've played all year. They're excellent in the running game. Jacoby Brissett is a real smart quarterback. They don't hold the ball long; they're hard to get to and sack him. They move the ball."