The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Detroit Lions on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Ford Field. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jameis Winston/ Ryan Griffin. We're blurring the lines a little bit on the concept of "five" with this either/or pick, but one of these two players is going to be the story of the game for the Buccaneers. Winston and the team followed a week-long plan to try to get him ready for the start in Detroit, keeping the football away from his right thumb until Friday, when he finally took his first throws since injuring that digit in the Week 14 win over the Colts. If Winston can properly grip the ball, he'll be piloting the NFL's second-most productive passing attack against a Lions defense that has given up the third-most aerial yards in the NFL. Winston is closing in on the Bucs' single-season record for yards and touchdowns and could start knocking off milestones on Sunday if he can play. If he can't get a grip, Griffin would make his first NFL start, something that has been almost six years in the making. He threw the first regular-season passes of his career last Sunday while Winston's thumb was being examined, but that one-possession cameo didn't prove much about his effectiveness as an NFL starter one way or the other. A full game would be a much better barometer.
Shaquil Barrett. Speaking of knocking off milestones, Barrett is close to one of the most prominent single-season records in Buccaneers history. For a franchise that has put two pass-rushers in the Hall of Fame (Lee Roy Selmon and Warren Sapp) and has another one among this year's Hall semifinalists (Simeon Rice), Barrett could soon be the standard-bearer for sacks. After a midweek review of last Sunday's game tape gave Barrett another half-sack to push his total to 15.5 in 2019, he is now just one behind the record of 16.5 set by Sapp in 2000. Right now, Barrett is tied for second with the total Rice put up in 2002. Given that Barrett has at least a half-sack in 10 of the Bucs' 13 games this season, there would seem to be a pretty good chance he'll at least catch Sapp on Sunday at Ford Field. From a competitive standpoint, Shaq's ability to get to the quarterback Sunday, along with the rest of his pass-rushing teammates, could be the difference in the outcome. The Lions will be starting rookie David Blough for a third time and the Buccaneers would like to give the inexperienced passer as little time to think as possible.
Justin Watson. When Mike Evans pulled up with a strained hamstring at the end of a 61-yard touchdown last Sunday the first quarter was just coming to an end. For the next three quarters, the Buccaneers' offense operated without their Pro Bowl pass-catcher and was able to put up another 330 passing yards and 24 points. One reason was the play of Watson, who picked up a lot of Evans' snaps at the X receiver position but also saw time at Z and F as the Bucs used various packages with him, Chris Godwin and Breshad Perriman in different spots. Watson logged a career-high 43 spans and made the most of them, catching five passes for 59 yards, including his first career touchdown. Watson will be needed again in Week 15 as Evans will still be sidelined by that hamstring injury. Oh, and for good measure, the second-year wideout is also now the team's first-line punt returner, thanks to the loss of T.J. Logan to injured reserve. The two punt returns he logged against the Colts were the first he had ever had at any level, but his sure hands and sound decision-making in that role impressed Head Coach Bruce Arians.
Carlton Davis. Like the Bucs, the Lions will be without one of their top receiving threats on Sunday, as Marvin Jones, who leads the team in catches, has been placed on injured reserve. But Detroit's biggest threat in the passing attack is third-year man Kenny Golladay, who has nine fewer catches than Jones but 229 more yards. He also has an NFL-leading 10 touchdown catches. Davis is sure to spend plenty of time covering Golladay, and it should be a physical battle between two big and strong players. Davis has quietly risen to the top of the league rankings in passes defensed, as his 17 breakups not only lead the Bucs' defense but also have him tied with Tennessee safety Logan Ryan for the most in the NFL in 2019. Davis and the Buccaneers' very young secondary appeared to have turned a corner in the last month of the season after experiencing their share of ups and downs for much of the year. This weekend, Davis will have an opportunity to make big plays against the Lions' aforementioned green quarterback, Blough.
Dare Ogunbowale. There are two reasons to keep an eye on the Bucs' third-string running back this weekend. One, according to Football Outsiders the Lions have the second-worst defensive results this year against running backs in the passing game, allowing them an average of 55 yards per game. Ogunbowale is usually on the field for the Bucs on third downs, and he's the team's top pass-catching back with 31 grabs. This could be an opportunity for him to turn short passes into long gains, as he did during the preseason. Two, the Lions' kickers have the lowest touchback percentage on kickoffs in the NFL, which means the Buccaneers' kickoff returner is likely to get much more action this weekend than any other week of the season. That's also Ogunbowale, who has taken over that job since Logan went down. The Lions have had to cover 45 kickoff returns this year, almost exactly double the league average. Ogunbowale only has two returns so far this year, averaging 22.5 per runback, but he'll probably get more than that on one afternoon Sunday.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 42.1%, 22.2%/24.4%, 6.5%. One game situation that would appear to pit strength against strength on Sunday will be when Detroit's offense faces a third down. The Lions' offense converts third downs at a 42.3% clip, which is the 12th-best in the NFL, while Tampa Bay's defense only allows a 33.9% conversion rate, which is fourth-best in the league. Where things will really get interesting, however, is when the Lions face a third down needing 7 or more yards. Detroit's conversion rate of 42.1% on third downs of seven to 10 yards is very impressive, good for second in the NFL, and the Lions are also seventh in the league from 11 or more yards, at 22.2%. That said, Tampa Bay's defense is particularly stifling in the same ranges, allowing 24.4% conversions from seven to 10 and 6.5% from 11-plus. Those rank sixth and first in the league, respectively.
· 81/81. This is a nice bit of symmetry, and potentially an enormous advantage for the Buccaneers on Sunday, particularly if it proves to be a close game. The first 81 (or the second one, if you wish) is how many points the Buccaneers have scored during the final two minutes of either the first half or the second half. That's the most for any team in the NFL, as are the Bucs' 11 touchdowns in those hectic portions of the game. The second 81 (or the first, if you wish) is how many points the Lions have allowed in the same situation. And yes, that's the most any NFL team has allowed this year. Detroit has given up 43 points in the final two minutes of the first half and 38 in the last two minutes of regulation.
· 15.5/14.0/13.5/12.5/12.5. As noted above, Shaq Barrett could break the Buccaneers' single-season sack record as soon as this Sunday in Detroit. With three games to go, Barrett definitely has a great opportunity to catch Warren Sapp's team record of 16.5, but he could also do something that neither Sapp nor any other pass-rusher in team history has done: He could lead the league in sacks. Those are the sack totals of the top five players on the list heading into Week 15. Shaq's closest challengers, in order of the sack totals above, are the Cardinals' Chandler Jones, the Saints' Cameron Jordan, the Vikings' Danielle Hunter and the Steelers' T.J. Watt.
· 99.277%. Tackle Donovan Smith, the Bucs' high-second-round pick in 2015, has started 77 consecutive games to open his career, second-most in team history to the 80 straight logged by Ring of Honor member Paul Gruber. Smith has barely missed an offensive snap in that span, playing 5,358 of a possible 5,397 Buccaneer plays, or the percentage you see above. However, five of those 39 missed snaps came last week as he was briefly knocked out of the win over Indianapolis with knee and ankle injuries. Smith did return to the field to finish that game but he has not been able to practice this week, which puts his streak in severe jeopardy. The Buccaneers may have to play somebody other than Smith at the critical left tackle spot for the first time since Dec. 28, 2014.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· If Smith does indeed see his streak snapped, Josh Wells would be in line for his second start as a Buccaneer and the 11th of his career. Wells opened Tampa Bay's Week Six game in London at right guard when Demar Dotson was out for a week. He also logged nine starts over the previous two seasons with the Jacksonville Jaguars. However, the Buccaneers appear to be getting starting right guard Alex Cappa back after Cappa missed one game with an elbow injury.
· The Lions placed their leading pass-catcher, Marvin Jones, on injured reserve this week, leaving them with just four wideouts on the roster. Kenny Golladay, who leads the team in yards and touchdowns takes one of the outside spots and veteran Danny Amendola usually works out of the slot. That leaves snaps on the outside for either Chris Lacy or Travis Fulgham, neither of whom was on the active roster as of 20 days ago. Lacy was promoted from the practice squad on Nov. 27 but has primarily worked as a kick returner and does not have a target in five career games. Fulgham, a sixth-round pick out of Old Dominion, has spent most of his rookie season on the Lions' practice squad and was just promoted this week.
· Mike Evans won't play for the Buccaneers on Sunday, which means more snaps for Breshad Perriman and probably a lot more for Justin Watson. Who actually gets the start may depend on the specific package the Bucs are in for their first play from scrimmage, though it could be both of them if they start in three-wide. Good news for that receiving corps: rookie Scotty Miller, who was coming on strong before a hamstring injury, appears to be set to return to action.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE LIONS
Detroit has had a prolific passing attack this season, gaining 263.2 yards per game to rank seventh in the NFL, though that is obviously more difficult to maintain in the absences of Matthew Stafford and Marvin Jones. The Lions have been particularly good at generating big plays through the air, with 55 completions of 20-plus yard, 11 of which have gone for touchdowns. Those totals rank fourth and tied for third in the league, respectively. Detroit's defense has struggled in most statistical categories this season but can bring some pressure off the edges with Trey Flowers and Devon Kennard, who have a combined 13 sacks. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Tampa Bay's defense has one job it must do if it wants to keep Detroit from running up the scoreboard: Keep Kenny Golladay out of the end zone. Golladay leads the NFL with 10 touchdown receptions and has two of those while playing with current starter David Blough, an undrafted rookie. Golladay doesn't have blazing speed but he still averages 19.0 yards per catch because he's big and strong and is excellent on double moves to get open deep. Without Jones, the Lions don't have another experienced outside receiver, so Golladay should expect to see some additional coverage rolled his way. The Buccaneers have faced a receiver with a similar style of play in Michael Thomas but weren't always able to keep Thomas contained. Golladay is the Lions' best chance to get the offense moving on Sunday, particularly with the Bucs' defense doing so well against the run almost every week.
Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offense is also down one of its two prolific receivers, with Mike Evans sidelined by a hamstring pull, which means Chris Godwin is likely to see a lot of Darius Slay, the Lions' top cornerback. Detroit often uses Slay to shadow an opponent's top receiver, relying on his superior man coverage skills, and that would clearly be Godwin with Evans out. Godwin will need to gain separation from Slay to put up his usual big numbers, though Detroit is likely to give their corner help as often as possible to keep the Bucs' top pass-catcher in check. Slay leads the Lions with two picks and he had eight just two seasons ago. He has excellent anticipation and ball skills and is a threat to jump a route and make a big play Sunday.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On how significant it would be for the Bucs to get a fourth win in a row on Sunday:
"Oh, it's huge. It's what we're playing for right now, to keep building on this momentum. It's always fun for me to see some adversity in a streak like this, losing Mike, maybe Donovan, and still go out and perform at the level we expect you to play at. No matter what number you wear the expectation level doesn't change."