The Tampa Bay Buccaneers play their 2018 home opener on Sunday when they welcome the defending league champions to Raymond James Stadium. Here are five issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of the Buccaneers' Week Two matchup with the Philadelphia Eagles:
1. How will the secondary be arranged and how effective will this new arrangement be?
The Buccaneers started their first week of regular-season practice with Brent Grimes and Vernon Hargreaves as their starting cornerbacks. Neither was available to start the second week of practice.
Hargreaves, in fact, is done for the season after suffering a shoulder injury while making a diving pass break-up in New Orleans. Grimes will hopefully miss far less time, but he wasn't ready for Game One after sustaining a groin injury on the practice field and he hasn't practiced at all this week, leaving his availability for Sunday in serious doubt.
So the Buccaneers will take five healthy cornerbacks into action on Sunday. Two are rookies who were drafted back-to-back in the second round in April (M.J. Stewart and Carlton Davis); one was on the practice squad until a day before the opener (Javien Elliott); one only joined the team on Tuesday (Marcus Williams); and the last one has 11 career starts (11).
However the snaps are doled out among the three cornerback spots (outside starters and nickel back), they will go to players of relatively little experience, or relatively little experience in Mike Smith's defense. Given how the team adjusted to Grimes' absence and Hargreaves' late-game departure last Sunday, one potential combination is Davis and Smith as the outside corners and Stewart coming in to play the slot in nickel packages.
That would match up, too, with what the Buccaneers' felt were the two rookies' specific strengths when they took them in the draft. Stewart was seen as an adept slot corner who could potentially help on the outside, too, while Davis is a bigger corner who is good at press coverage and can take on bigger receivers on the edge. Elliott would be another option in the slot, a job he held for a few games at the end of the 2016 season. Williams, a former Jet with 10 career interceptions in 45 games, might be able to pitch in if he's absorbed enough of the playbook in five days.
Davis and Stewart got a baptism by fire when they played their first career regular-season game opposite the Saints' Drew Brees. In a wild shootout that the Bucs won, 48-40, Brees put up some gaudy statistics. There were definitely some rookie moments for Davis and Stewart, but those could prove to be valuable lessons. How quickly those two can progress through their NFL learning curve may determine how effective the Bucs' secondary is in stopping Nick Foles and the Eagles' talented offense.
2. Can the Buccaneers' offensive line offer Ryan Fitzpatrick outstanding protection for the second week in a row?
Ryan Fitzpatrick had a career day in the Bucs' win over the Saints, throwing for 417 yards and four touchdowns and even running in a fifth score. The Buccaneers needed every bit of it to hold on to the eight-point win.
Fitzpatrick was unquestionably in a zone, particularly in regards to his accuracy on deep balls. But all of those big plays began with him having time to throw; on the first of the four touchdowns, for instance, Fitzpatrick took an extended time staring at Mike Evans in order to draw the safety over before turning and firing deep to DeSean Jackson on the other side.
"I thought our backs did a nice job," said Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken of Fitzpatrick's protection in Week One. "I thought our guys up front did a really nice job of protecting. At times, we got the ball out quickly – we went quickly at times. I thought our plan was really good again headed up by coach [Dirk Koetter] in terms of how want to take away some of their game-wreckers – especially 94 [Cameron Jordan], so that was good, which we did at times. Like I said, there [were] other times when we got a little leakage – Fitz got the ball out."
Jordan, who had 13 sacks and a first-team All-Pro nod last year, was indeed the Saints' biggest threat up front, but neither he nor any of his fellow pass-rushers got Fitzpatrick to the ground. In fact, New Orleans was credited with just two hits on Fitzpatrick, which was equal to the number of times they drew a roughing-the-passer penalty.
Duplicating that outcome will be a difficult challenge against an Eagles' defensive line that runs very deep and is headlined by defensive tackle Fletcher Cox and defensive end Brandon Graham. Philadelphia parted ways with Beau Allen and Vinny Curry in the offseason – both are now Buccaneers – but they added defensive tackle Haloti Ngata and defensive end Michael Bennett to maintain their rotational depth. In Week One, the Eagles dropped Falcons QB Matt Ryan four times, with 1.5 of those sacks credited to Cox.
"It still comes back to everything with Philly is predicated on the pressure they get with rushing four – as good as it gets with a four-man rush," said Koetter. "And they keep those guys fresh. They are good at putting pressure on you."
Even though the Eagles don't often need to bring extra blitzers in order to pressure the quarterback, they certainly are capable of mixing it up. Linebacker Jordan Hicks was also credited with 1.5 of those four sacks against Atlanta. The Buccaneers will need to win their one-on-one matchups up front and also be alert for blitz pick-ups if they want to keep Fitzpatrick off the ground again.
3. Will the pass rush be more effective than it was in Week One?
Tampa Bay's own pass rush wasn't much more effective than that of the Saints in Week One. Curry had the game's only sack and the Bucs' hit Brees just five times on 46 dropbacks. The Bucs added Allen and Curry as part of an overhaul up front and the hope was to create the sort of deep rotation that the Eagles used on their way to lifting the Lombardi Trophy last year.
Unfortunately, injuries have kept two other notable additions, defensive tackles Vita Vea and Mitch Unrein, out of that rotation. New defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul hurt a knee in the opener and was limited throughout practice this week. The Bucs will still likely have eight linemen active on Sunday, but the presumed rotation hasn't yet come together. They'd like to see it be more impactful in Week Two.
"We'd love to do better that we did," said Koetter. "Brees is one of the best, right up there at the top of the league in getting it off. Their passing game fits their style. Philly runs a different style passing game – more RPOs. They're averaging something like 10 RPOs a game. Every week, different set of groceries so to speak, as far as what you've to stop. Our goal is one per 14 attempts. We weren't close to that, so that's what you're shooting for."
Unfortunately, the Buccaneers will be facing a very good offensive line for the second straight week. Right tackle Lane Johnson and center Jason Kelce were both first-team All-Pros last year, and right guard Brandon Brooks was chosen for the Pro Bowl. Left tackle Jason Peters did not get a Pro Bowl bid because he missed nine games due to injury, but he's been to nine all-star games in the past.
"They've got a lot of good blockers, man," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "They have an Oklahoma guy, so we know he's good. Jason Peters is arguably the best left tackle in the game for a long time. Kelce is probably the best center in football with everything he's capable of doing. Brandon Brooks – I played against him in Houston I think in 2015 then he signed a big contract with Philly, Pro Bowler last year, big-body guy, great feet. I can't even pronounce [left guard Stephen] Wisniewski's name – he does great for them, so overall, they have a good unit up front."
View photos of the all new Bucs Beach fan area at Raymond James Stadium
4. How will the Eagles' defense choose to defend the Bucs' talented receiving corps?
Buccaneer coaches noted this week that the Saints employed more man-to-man coverage than they had expected. Obviously, Tampa Bay's talented pass-catchers were able to win a lot of those one-on-one battles. Evans and Jackson were particularly potent – they combined to catch all 12 passes thrown in their direction for a total of 293 yards.
Will the Eagles choose a similar approach? No two defensive game plans are ever the same, so the Buccaneers will have to wait and see how the Eagles' coverage dictates their offensive choices.
"They're different than New Orleans," said Monken. "They play a lot of single-high [safety formations], so it's harder to get balls down the field. They play off a lot more and they react to quarterback's drops and the depths in your route, so you've got to be really efficient in those things. That's the next challenge – its every week."
Like the Buccaneers' defense did during its Super Bowl heyday, the Eagles can crowd the secondary with talented defensive tackles because their front four is so good at generating pressure without help. Evans, Jackson and the rest of the Bucs' pass-catchers could find less real estate to exploit this week.
"Well, the pressure helps the back end, right?" said Koetter. "The pressure helps the back end and they have good players both in the front and in the back. They play a lot of nickel and dime coverages. A lot of nickel and dime looks, so they get those extra DBs out there. They do a really good job of passing routes off – of matching routes as we would say. They're not complicated, but they're really good at what they do."
5. How aggressive will the play-calling be from both sidelines?
The Buccaneers finished last Sunday's win with 34 carries and 28 passes, which would seem to indicate a run-heavy approach. In reality, 12 of those 34 runs were Fitzpatrick scrambles and kneel-downs and seven of running back Peyton Barber's 19 carries came on two "four-minute drills" in the fourth quarter when the Bucs were trying to run out the clock. The Bucs' game plan, the Saints' defensive choices and Fitzpatrick's hot hand actually prompted the team to air it out for much of the game, to great effect.
Koetter has often said that a balanced offense is the toughest attack to defend. But he's also going to stick with whatever is working, and whatever the defense is giving up. There's little doubt that the Bucs' top strength is in its passing attack, and they're not likely to get away from that. However, the Eagles' defensive decisions will affect how frequently the team goes downfield.
As for the Eagles, they are recognized as one of the NFL's most aggressive teams under Head Coach Doug Pederson. They were second in the NFL in fourth-down attempts last year and first in two-point conversion tries. They are also known to pull out the trick play now and then, as they did in Week One with wide receiver Nick Agholor throwing a pass to quarterback Nick Foles.
"You got to be alert for it," said Koetter. "That's something the he's got. Andy Reid's in that same category. Basically the trick play the Eagles ran against Atlanta was just another version of the one they ran in the Super Bowl. That's a play that a lot of college teams run almost every week in the red zone. [Pederson] has definitely shown that he'll go for it on fourth down across the 50 [yard line]. He's not afraid to go for two [point conversion] and that he's not afraid to run trick plays."
Defensive Coordinator Mike Smith says that defending against trick plays depends on having "good eye discipline." It's the frequent fourth-down attempts that really changes the tenor for a defense.
"When you're having to defend four downs instead of three downs, it completely changes the dynamic of the game," said Smith. "We faced that last week [in the fourth quarter]. We knew, 'Hey we were playing four downs,' – ended up having to defend a fourth down. He'll go for it on two-point plays, so we got some experience there as well in Game One in terms of, 'Hey, we're defending two yards guys we've got to get it done.' We didn't get it done last week. We got to be able to do it this week, but [he's a] very aggressive play caller."