The Tampa Bay Buccaneers hit the road in Week 11 to play a second consecutive NFC East foe, this time in the Meadowlands. The New York Giants have stumbled to a 2-7 start but are coming off a rousing Monday Night Football win in San Francisco. The Buccaneers are only one game better in the NFC standings, having lost three straight to fall to 3-6. Tampa Bay is looking for its first road win since an opening-weekend shootout in New Orleans.
The Giants boast an offense led by the accomplished Eli Manning and featuring such dynamic talents as wide receivers Odell Beckham and Sterling Shepard, tight end Evan Engram and its newest piece, rookie running back Saquon Barkley. Though the Giants rank next-to-last in the NFL in rushing yards per game, Barkley is already over 1,100 yards from scrimmage and could become the third player ever with 1,000 rushing yards and 1,000 receiving yards in the same season. New York's defense has had trouble getting pressure on the quarterback but features a hard-hitting safety in Landon Collins and a ball-hawking cornerback in Janoris Jenkins.
One thing the Giants have done well all season is protect the football, committing just nine turnovers. Tampa Bay's defense will try to change that, and break its own six-game takeaway drought, an outcome that may be necessary for the Buccaneers to get back in the win column.
Turnovers may be the most important factor in Sunday's decision, but here are five other issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Giants contest:
1. Will Jason Pierre-Paul lead the way to a high-pressure day on Giants QB Eli Manning?
The Buccaneers' sack leader returns to the Meadowlands for the first time since the Giants traded him to the Buccaneers in March, and he has admitted to having this game circled on his calendar for quite some time. While expressing respect for the Giants organization and for Manning, Pierre-Paul also made it known that he hopes to get Manning on the ground.
Pierre-Paul has 8.0 sacks, all of which he compiled during a dominant six-game stretch. He has been held without a sack the past two games as he has played through some minor injuries, but he's primed for a big performance, and if he can record two sacks on Sunday he'll be the first Buccaneer to hit double digits in that category since Simeon Rice in 2005.
And if that happens, the Buccaneers will have a much better chance at slowing down an offense that, as noted above, is loaded with dangerous play-makers. New York has had several games this season in which the offense was short-circuited by too much pressure on Manning, mostly due to a shifting O-Line roster, but it only allowed one sack of Manning in Monday's win at San Francisco.
"They’ve had some protection issues this year," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Of course. with Eli [Manning’s] experience, he’s always been a guy that can get it out fast and they have reason to get it out fast. They’re a good passing team. I think they’re 11th or 12th in passing and they’ve got good weapons on the outside."
The Buccaneers got Washington's Alex Smith down for three sacks in last Sunday's game, but all three came in the second half. In an effort to get off to a fast start, and to keep the Giants from doing the same, the Bucs would like to dial up the pressure as early as possible this weekend.
"Eli is Eli," said Buccaneers defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "They’ve got a whole slew up [of weapons] there. Arguably the best receiver in the game, arguably the best young running back in football. We’ve just got a really good offense and if they get on fire it’s going to be hard to stop."
2. Will the Bucs continue to move towards a more balanced attack?
Koetter took the play-calling duties back from Offensive Coordinator Todd Monken last week, and one of his goals was to get to the running game a little earlier and a little more often. After 30 plays in a low-scoring first half, the Bucs had run it 15 times and dropped back to pass 15 times. In the end, the Bucs still threw for 406 yards against 103 on the ground.
The passing game is obviously going to remain the Buccaneers' strong suit and they aren't going to minimize such weapons as Mike Evans and O.J. Howard. But a more effective running game would help in a number of complementary ways, from increasing the bit of their play-action throws, keeping the defense off the field and reducing the risk of turnovers.
"Who wouldn’t like to take advantage of your nine or 10 possessions, take seven minutes or six minutes off the clock and finish with a touchdown?" said Monken. "In an ideal world, that is perfect. In every sport, how do we do that? Efficiency on the offensive end where we take time and we don’t give them as many possessions. We’d love to be able to do that and be more efficient at it – more effective in the red zone. You bet."
Lead back Peyton Barber has played well in recent games, even if his touches have been somewhat limited by situational concerns. He averaged 4.7 yards per carry last Sunday against the Redskins but was essentially absent from the offense in the fourth quarter. With their defense thinned by injuries to key players, the Buccaneers would love to use Barber to end up on the right side of the time-of-possession battle.
3. Will the newly-signed Cairo Santos bring consistency to the Bucs' kicking game?
The Buccaneers switched placekickers earlier in the week, releasing Chandler Catanzaro and signing Cairo Santos, who opened his career with three fine seasons (2014-16) in Kansas City. Santos is a career 84.1% field goal kicker in the NFL and he made five of six attempts during a two-game cameo with the Los Angeles Rams earlier this season.
The Buccaneers moved on from Catanzaro after he missed two of three field goal tries against Washington last Sunday, including a 30-yarder that would have tied the game in the first quarter. Catanzaro was 11 of 15 on field goal tries and 23 of 27 on extra point attempts during his nine games on the job in Tampa.
The Buccaneers' recent history at the position has been shaky at best, but the team will cross its fingers that Santos can stabilize it. He said a fast start would be important to him settling into a groove in his new NFL home, and he put himself in position to do with a good opening week of practice in Tampa.
"He’s the only kicker we’ve got, we'd better like him," said Koetter. "He had a good week at practice – anxious to see him go to work on Sunday."
4. Through whom will the passing game primarily flow this week?
The Buccaneers continue to put up big passing numbers week after week, with at least 340 aerial yards in seven of nine games and 389 or more in five of them. They've done so regardless of which of the team's skill position players the opposing defenses choose to focus on.
For instance, Mike Evans had a huge 179-yard outing at Cincinnati in Week Eight but was clearly the focal point for Carolina's defense in Week Nine. Ryan Fitzpatrick adjusted to Carolina's heavy coverage on the outside by throwing repeatedly to slot receiver Adam Humphries and tight end O.J. Howard, both of whom caught a pair of touchdown passes. Last week, the Bucs had two players top 100 yards in receiving, and it was none of the above. Second-year wide receiver Chris Godwin and third-down back Jacquizz Rodgers were targeted a combined 15 times and produced 15 receptions for 205 yards.
Koetter has often said that the only player you can make sure gets the football is your tailback, on handoffs, while the defense dictates where it goes in the passing game. Fortunately for the Buccaneers, they have so many explosive weapons on offense – in addition to those listed above, the team also makes great use of big-play wide receiver DeSean Jackson and pass-catching tight end Cam Brate – that they can succeed no matter which ones are in the defense's crosshairs. Will the Giants continue the recent trend and try to take Mike Evans out of the attack as much as possible, or will Evans go back to the 110-yards-per-game pace he was on through the first seven contests?
5. How will the Buccaneers' adjust in the absences of Lavonte David and Justin Evans?
Already playing without starting middle linebacker Kwon Alexander, starting cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and starting safety Chris Conte (all now on injured reserve), the Buccaneers also ruled out starting left end Vinny Curry, starting weakside linebacker Lavonte David and starting safety Justin Evans on Friday. The defensive lineup will definitely have a new look this Sunday in the Meadowlands.
Rookie safety Godwin Igwebuike was promoted and could figure into the plan in the secondary, though it is likely that rookie Jordan Whitehead and first-year man Isaiah Johnson will start. The Buccaneers have also used safety Andrew Adams as something of a hybrid linebacker in sub packages in recent weeks and will surely continue to do so.
The linebacking corps could see quite a bit of shifting. Adarius Taylor has been filling in for Alexander in the middle but he is now a candidate to move over to the weak side with David out as well. That could open up an opportunity for Riley Bullough or the newly-signed Kevin Minter. Cameron Lynch also played on the weak side last Sunday when David was out of the game with his knee injury.
"Other than the obvious injuries that keep guys out for long periods of time, we’re a little nicked up this week," said Koetter. "That’s the NFL. When you get to this part of the season, no one’s feeling sorry for you. The good news, it’s next man up and we’ve got guys that are excited to go in there and get their opportunity.
"Any time you have new guys in new roles, part of you [is] feeling bad about the guys that are out, but those guys that are going in, they’re excited as hell to be going in there and getting their opportunity to play. They’re vocal. You’ve got guys in new roles and learning a new plan for that week. I thought we had good tempo throughout practice on both sides today."