The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New York Giants on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:05 kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Ronald Jones II. Bruce Arians, Byron Leftwich and the Buccaneers have stuck to the "hot hand" approach to give the Buccaneers a reliable running game through the first two weeks. In Week One, it was Jones who got that hot hand in the second half and the Bucs stuck with him to the tune of 75 yards on 13 carries. Last week, Jones was dealing with a toe injury that flared up at one point, causing Arians to skip one of his intended series. That also gave more chances to starter Peyton Barber, who took advantage by getting on a run of his own and recording 82 yards and a touchdown. Jones has not been on the injury report this week after a restful weekend following the Thursday night game, so presumably shouldn't have any impediment to getting his turn against the Giants. If he gets hot again, Arians will be sure to ride him as long as it lasts.
Lavonte David. The Buccaneers are facing a rookie quarterback making his first NFL start, but their defense isn't exactly long in the tooth, either. If there is a savvy veteran in the back seven of the defense most likely to use his experience to make plays against an untested passer, it would be David, who has 10 career interceptions and might be lurking around when Jones tries to dump off a pass to a back or tight end underneath. David will also be an important part of the team's defense against New York's most effective weapon in the passing game, tight end Evan Engram.
Ali Marpet. Whether it's Jones or Barber getting the bulk of the carries on Sunday, they'll need running lanes and Arians has made it clear that the Buccaneers are a "tackle-to-tackle" running team. That means the Bucs' big men up front will have to move the Giants sizeable down linemen around as much as possible. Marpet will face a particular challenge when he goes one-on-one with B.J. Hill, who had a very promising rookie season as a run-stopper and developing pass-rusher (5.5 sacks). Marpet and company also need to give Jameis Winston time to take advantage of a Giants secondary that has already allowed five touchdown passes.
Carl Nassib. Nassib was the Buccaneers' second-leading sack artist last year, but the Buccaneers don't have a second-leading sack man yet this season. Fellow starting OLB Shaq Barrett has all four of the team's sacks through two games. That doesn't mean Nassib or the Bucs' other pass-rushers have had no effect on the first two games; they just haven't gotten an opposing QB all the way down yet. The Buccaneers need that to change soon, and expect that it will. The high-motor, strong-willed Nassib isn't likely to be denied for long. Said Arians: "Hopefully, they'll start sliding to him. Carl has had a couple but he's let them go. Yeah, we'd like to get some more going and I think Carl's been really close. I think [Ndamukong] Suh got close a couple of times, so yeah – just finish the deal."
Mike Evans. Chris Godwin has been the biggest producer in the Bucs' passing attack so far, but Winston isn't neglecting his number-one target from the last four years. Godwin has only two more targets than Evans (15 to 13) and the two have a near identical yards-per-catch rate. However, 11 of Godwin's 15 targets have turned into receptions, compared to six out of 13 for Evans. Thus, throws in Godwin's direction have produced an average of 11.6 yards per target, while those intended for Evans have produced 6.8 yards per target. This will not last. In 2018, Evans ranked fourth among all qualifying receivers with an average of 11.04 yards per target, and first among all players targeted more than 70 times. This could be Evans first breakout game of 2019 against a Giants secondary that has struggled to start the season.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 59.5% rushing plays of 4+ yards/29.4% opponent rushing plays of 4+ yards. With Saquon Barkley and his 7.8 yards per carry leading the way, the Giants have the most efficient rushing attack in the NFL on a play-by-plays. The Giants have run 37 rushing plays so far and 22 of them have gained four or more yards, for a league-leading 59.5% of those runs. However, Tampa Bay's rush defense has been the stingiest in the league in the same category, allowing only 15 of 51 opposing rushes (29.4%) to gain at least four yards. This is the unstoppable force meeting the immovable object.
· 9 offensive touchdowns allowed. The Giants' defense has surrendered nine touchdowns, four on the ground and five in the air. Only the Miami Dolphins, with 12, have allowed more through the first two weeks. The Dallas Cowboys failed to score on their first possession against New York in Week One, then marched at least 75 yards for a touchdown on each of its next five drives. Last weekend, the Buffalo Bills failed to score on their first possession then launched three consecutive touchdown drives of 70 or more yards. The Buccaneers' offense is off to a bit of a slow start in 2019 but might have the opportunity to break out on Sunday.
· 2.15% sacks per pass attempt allowed. The Giants have mostly rebuilt their offensive line in the last two years and it seems to be working. In addition to helping Barkley get off to a good start, Nate Solder and company have also provided good protection to their quarterback. That was Eli Manning in the first two games, and despite his relative lack of mobility he was only taken down twice in that span. That 2.15% sack rate is third best in the NFL. Now the Giants are switching to the more mobile Daniel Jones, so factor in his potential "escapability" to the difficulty of getting sacks for the Bucs' defense this Sunday.
· 0.00% red zone touchdown efficiency allowed. What a difference a year makes. Last season, Tampa Bay's red zone had a green light in it, as 77.59% of the opposing drives that crossed its 20 also crossed its goal line. That 77.59% touchdown rate allowed in the red zone was the worst in the NFL. This year, the 49ers and Panthers managed to penetrate the Bucs' red zone six times in the first two weeks, but none of those drives resulted in touchdowns. The Buccaneers join the Packers and the Patriots as the only teams in the NFL that have yet to allow a red zone touchdown, but the Bucs have had to stand up more often. Green Bay and New England have only faced five red zone drives combined.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The biggest lineup note in this Week Three matchup, of course, comes from the opposition camp, where the Giants have decided to turn to their rookie quarterback, Daniel Jones, the sixth-overall pick in the draft this past spring. Jones replaces Eli Manning, who has started 232 of New York's last 233 regular-season games. Jones will be the 19th quarterback ever to make his first start against the Buccaneers, nearly 40 years to the week that the Giants' Phil Simms did the same thing.
· The player picked one spot before Jones in April's first round was linebacker Devin White, by the Buccaneers. White stepped right into a starting ILB role next to Lavonte David, but he suffered a knee injury early in the Week Two game at Carolina and has been ruled out for the Giants game. Kevin Minter replaced him the rest of the way against the Panthers but both Minter and Deone Bucannon are viable options this week and both could see playing time depending upon situation.
· With OLB Devante Bond ruled out for the game, first-year OLB Demone Harris should be active for the first time this season and is likely to play extensively on special teams, as well as potentially have a part in the edge-rushing rotation. The four injured players taking up more than half the inactive list could mean a first opportunity for tight end Tanner Hudson and/or wide receiver Scotty Miller, too.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE GIANTS
The Giants offense may now be under the direction of a completely inexperienced rookie, but he does have the advantage of a star running back operating behind a very effective offensive line. On defense, the Giants have struggled through the first two weeks but they do have a sizeable interior line that is big, young and hard to move.
The Giants may have a generational talent in their backfield. That's an overused term but it just might apply to Saquon Barkley, the highest-drafted running back (second overall in 2018) in 12 years. Barkley was seen as the most complete running back prospect in a long time, with power, speed, balance, vision, quickness and pass-catching ability. And he has not disappointed, surpassing 100 yards from scrimmage in 15 of his 18 NFL games so far and producing a 50+-yard play in every other game, on average. Tampa Bay's run defense has been very good so far, especially up the middle, but the Giants have many ways to get the ball into Barkley's hands all over the field. Limiting the damage he inflicts, much as the Bucs did with Christian McCaffrey in Week Two, will be job number one for the defense.
The Buccaneers have also run the ball pretty well, ranking 15th in the NFL with 110.5 yards per game. The Giants' defense may be giving up 120.0 rushing yards per game but they are making their opponents work for it, as evidenced by a 3.75 yards-per-carry average allowed that ranks ninth in the league. The three-man line in the Giants' 3-4 defense is occupied by three players taken on Day One or Two of the draft in the last three years: nose tackle Dalvin Tomlinson (2017, 2nd round) and ends B.J. Hill (2018, 3rd round) and Dexter Lawrence (2019, 1st round). Hill is coming off a very good rookie season and Lawrence has already played well enough to have his coaches contemplating increasing his snap total in the D-Line rotation.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On what he has found encouraging about the progression of the season so far:
"I think we're committing fewer and fewer penalties and our mental errors – we're not beating ourselves. That was the problem in the first [game], and I've seen us practice so much better and win a ball game without beating ourselves when we could have. We could've lost that [Carolina] game easily, saying how close we got, and close isn't good enough. I think our guys our realizing close isn't good enough and losing is not acceptable."