The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Jacksonville Jaguars on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at TIAA Bank Field. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Carlton Davis. Did the Bucs' young secondary turn a corner in Week 12? It remains to be seen if Davis and company can string together multiple outings like the one that saw Tampa Bay's defense break up 16 passes and hold noted Buc-killer Julio Jones in check. Regardless, Davis is coming off a career game in which he recorded five passes defensed and snared his first career interception on a contested, leaping play against Falcons wide receiver Calvin Ridley. The 22-year-old Davis is actually now one of the most experienced players in Tampa Bay's secondary, and he's also one of the more physical players in that unit. At 6-1 and 206 pounds, he's a good match for such tall Jacksonville receivers as D.J. Chark and Chris Conley. After last week's outing, Davis now has 12 passes defensed on the season, which is tied for the ninth-most in the NFL. Davis is also fifth on Tampa Bay's defense with 37 tackles and could factor into the Bucs' efforts to stop Jacksonville's top offensive threat, running back Leonard Fournette.
Ronald Jones. Jones has been perhaps the Buccaneers' most improved player in 2019 after a lost rookie season. The overall numbers aren't overwhelming – 474 rushing yards and 692 yards from scrimmage – but he's averaging 4.0 yards per carry and 10.4 yards per reception and he's scored four times in the last six games. The former second-round pick out of USC has surpassed 100 yards from scrimmage in two games but is still looking for his first 100-yard rushing game in the NFL. The opportunity is there this week as Tampa Bay is going up against a Jacksonville defense that ranks 29th against the run, allowing 142.3 yards per game, and is giving up a league worst 5.43 yards per carry. In addition, that defense may be without standout middle linebacker Myles Jack this Sunday due to a knee injury. Jones averaged 4.3 yards per tote in Atlanta last Sunday, including one hard-charging 25-yard run through a gauntlet of tacklers and an impressive spinning four-yard touchdown run in which he bounced off three Falcons to get to the goal line. Bruce Arians wants to have a balanced offense when it's possible and the Bucs are likely to emphasize Jones early against that vulnerable Jaguars run defense.
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Shaq Barrett. Barrett was all over Atlanta's backfield last Sunday, registering a season-high five quarterback hits. One of those was a sack to give him 12.5 on the season, which tied for the league lead heading into Week 13. (New Orleans' Cameron Jordan had four sacks on Thanksgiving to get to 13.5 and the top of the list with Sunday and Monday's games pending.) Barrett's sack came in backside of pursuit of Matt Ryan near the Falcons' goal line, and his right arm chop dislodged the football, which unfortunately bounced off the turf and right back into Ryan's grasp. That's the fifth forced fumble of the season for Barrett, which is also tied for the NFL lead in that category, and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles says the burgeoning pass-rusher has an "innate skill" for that particular play. Tampa Bay's constant pressure on Ryan, who was hit 13 times and sacked six times, had a lot to do with the secondary having so many opportunities to make plays. The Buccaneers hope to put the same sort of pressure on Jacksonville's Nick Foles, who is playing just his third game since returning from a broken collarbone and is still looking to get himself and the Jaguars' offense into a rhythm. Barrett will lead the charge in making Foles uncomfortable in the pocket.
Chris Godwin. After his career day in Atlanta – 184 yards and two touchdowns – Godwin is the reigning NFC Offensive Player of the Week and the Buccaneers' leading receiver after he slipped just past Mike Evans on Sunday. Both Godwin and Evans are having monstrous seasons, are clearly Pro Bowl worthy and are on pace for more than 1,500 receiving yards. Godwin also leads the NFL with nine touchdown receptions, just three off the Bucs' single-season record set by Evans in both 2014 and 2016. When Godwin has had a hot hand this year he's tended to take over games and put up huge numbers, including five games of more than 120 yards, three with multiple touchdowns and two with 10 or more receptions. As the Buccaneers finish up their final five-game stretch, it will be interesting to watch how opposing defenses, beginning with Jacksonville, prioritize their approaches to the Bucs' pass-catchers. More often than not in 2019, Buccaneer opponents have made a point of trying to limit Evans' production, and indeed he's been held below 90 yards for three straight contests and hasn't scored in that span. Could the Jaguars choose differently and try to slow down Godwin, and if so, will they be able to do so?
Vita Vea. What will the Buccaneers' second-year defensive lineman do next? Three games ago he saw his first work in the Bucs' goal-line package on offense and blocked three Arizona players in rapid succession on Peyton Barber's game-winning touchdown run. Last week he came in on offense again but faked his block and ran a shallow pattern out to the right, catching a one-yard touchdown pass from Jameis Winston. Vea hasn't quit his day job, though. In that same game last Sunday he registered one of his sacks on a beautiful move between the center and right guard, and he also broke up two passes on penetrating plays on which he got his hands up. Vea is a key cog in Tampa Bay's excellent run defense but he's also quick and nimble and a factor in the pass rush. Last year, Vea overcame a slow start to his rookie season caused by a training camp leg injury and was one of the team's most productive defensive linemen down the stretch. His game in Atlanta could be the start of another good run to end his second season…oh, and maybe he'll do something new on offense, too.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 5.7/3.8. Last week in Atlanta, the Buccaneers ran on first-and-10 to start seven of their 11 drives (not including two end-of-half kneel-downs). One of those was a rollout scramble by Winston, but on three of the other drives the Buccaneers brought in an extra lineman to suggest a power run and then threw out of that formation. If Tampa Bay wants to establish its running game on first down this Sunday they've got the right opponent for it; Jacksonville has allowed a league-worst 5.7 yards per carry on that down. However, that hasn't exactly been a strength for the Buccaneers' offense, as their 3.8 yards per carry on first down this season ranks just 23rd in the league.
· 6/0. The Jaguars signed former Philadelphia Super Bowl hero Nick Foles in the offseason after moving on from Blake Bortles. A broken collarbone in Week One has kept Jacksonville from getting much of a look at their high-priced acquisition, but he's back in the lineup now, which is notable for the next team coming into Jacksonville. The Buccaneers might have preferred a little (Gardner] Minshew Mania over another game against Foles, who has had three very good performances against Tampa Bay in the past. In addition to averaging 337 passing yards per game against the Bucs, Foles has also thrown six touchdown passes in those three contests (to be fair, the most recent one was a Buccaneer victory last September) and has not thrown a single interception in 130 pass attempts.
· 654/3.17/68.8%. Buccaneers OLB Shaq Barrett on Jaguars RB Leonard Fournette: "He's a hard runner, he spins out of tackles and he just keeps going." Barrett hit the nail on the head. The hard-charging, 6-0 and 220-pound back doesn't often go down on first contact. In fact, his 654 rushing yards after contact this year are second in the NFL only to Tennessee's Derrick Henry, who has 703. Only Henry and Kansas City's Damien Williams get a higher percentage of their total rushing yards after contact than Fournette and his 68.8%. Fournette is averaging 4.6 yards per carry this season and nearly 3.2 of those, on average, come after contact. Again, only Henry has a higher average of rushing yards after contact, with 3.4. Nobody else in the NFL is even over 3.0.
· 71/10. Jameis Winston did it again in Week 12, leading the Buccaneers' offense to a score just before halftime. Winston's touchdown pass to Vita Vea with 40 seconds left in the second quarter may have been a novelty in design, but scoring in the final two minutes of either half is nothing new for the Buccaneers. That touchdown added to Tampa Bay's league-leading total of 71 points scored in those situations. That includes 10 touchdowns; no other team in the NFL has more than seven. Vea's touchdown turned a tenuous three-point lead into a two-score game, and the Bucs then scored again on the opening possession of the second half and never led by fewer than 12 points the rest of the way.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· WR Scotty Miller, who has in recent weeks played a larger role in the Buccaneers' offense, will be unable to play on Sunday due to a hamstring injury suffered on the practice field on Wednesday. Miller's absence will likely mean more snaps for Breshad Perriman, but second-year man Justin Watson, who has mostly been a special teams player this week, could get into the offensive mix as well.
· Jacksonville could be without starting middle linebacker Myles Jack, who is questionable on the injury report and could miss a game for the first time in his four-year career due to a knee injury. That would also snap a string of 45 consecutive starts. If Jack is out, the Jaguars would probably turn to first-year player Donald Payne, a former undrafted free agent out of Stetson who began this season on Baltimore's practice squad but did play 21 games for the Jaguars in 2017 and 2018.
· Jaguars TE Seth DeValve has been ruled out for Sunday's game, adding to the health misfortune the team has had at that position already. Claimed off waivers in September, DeValve had actually started five games because three other Jaguar tight ends – Geoff Swaim, James O'Shaughnessy and third-round rookie Josh Oliver – all ended up on injured reserve. With DeValve out for a second straight week, the Jaguars will likely feature tight end Nick O'Leary, who was signed less than two weeks ago, in their offense.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE JAGUARS
Foles has thrown for 568 yards, two touchdowns and just one interception in the two games since his return, but the Jaguars offense has only scored 33 points across those 120 minutes. Jacksonville has a balanced offense, ranking in the top half of the league in both rushing and receiving yards but has had trouble in the red zone and has scored the seventh fewest points per game in the league. On defense, the Jaguars have had trouble stopping the run but have been very good at getting after the quarterback, especially from the edge. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Both of the touchdown passes Foles has thrown since his return went to second-year wide receiver D.J. Chark, who has gone from being a complementary player as a second-round rookie last year to the focal point of the Jaguars' passing attack this season. Chark leads the team with 834 receiving yards and eight touchdowns and is averaging 14.9 yards per catch despite not having blazing speed. The former LSU standout is tall (6-4) with a very wide wingspan and he possesses great body control when the ball is in the air, allowing him to make difficult and contested catches. Foles has taken to Chark quickly since getting back in the lineup, targeting him 21 times over the past two games. In the last three weeks, the Jaguars have taken away Chark's special teams duties and kept him on the field for more than 95% of the team's offensive snaps. Tampa Bay's improving young secondary did a fine job of limiting Atlanta's Julio Jones last Sunday and will surely be paying the same high level of attention to Chark this weekend.
Of the Jaguars' 34 sacks of opposing quarterbacks this season, 19.5 belong to the talented and varied defensive end trio of imposing veteran Calais Campbell, speedy edge rusher Yannick Ngakoue and first-round draft pick Josh Allen. Allen, the seventh-overall pick in last April's draft, has made an immediate impact with a team-leading 8.0 sacks, utilizing his speed, power and well-developed arsenal of pass rush moves. Campbell is an enormous six-foot-eight end who can play all over the line and has 87.0 career sacks, including 24.5 in his first two years in Jacksonville. But it's been Ngakoue who has been particularly hot of late, notching four sacks in his last four games. Ngakoue is a true edge rusher, usually seeking to dart around the tackle rather than go through him or work inside. He'll likely see most of his action on the weak side, so whichever Buccaneer tackle is not lined up next to a tight end will see a lot of him.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how encouraging it was to see the young players in the Bucs' secondary play so much better last Sunday in Atlanta:
"It's huge. They showed that if they communicate and study they can play well enough against some really quality receivers. Hopefully we can carry that over and get better this week."