The 5-8 Tampa Bay Buccaneers will hit the road again after a three-game homestand and try to keep their slim playoff hopes alive against a Baltimore Ravens team that, at 7-6, is challenging Pittsburgh for the NFC North division crown. Baltimore has won three of four since inserting rookie Lamar Jackson in at quarterback, putting it in the lead for the second Wild Card spot in the AFC and just a half-game behind the Steelers in their division.
Jackson took over the Ravens' offense four games ago after Joe Flacco suffered a hip injury, but he will remain in the lineup this week even as Flacco returns to active status. Baltimore's offense has transformed radically since the QB switch, taking advantage of Jackson's outstanding running ability. The Ravens were throwing the ball on almost exactly two-thirds of their plays with Flacco under center; now they are running the ball on almost exactly two-thirds of their play, and Jackson is already the team's leading rusher.
Baltimore's defense, meanwhile, has allowed the fewest points in the league and ranks in the top 10 in a wide variety of categories. The Ravens have produced 38 quarterback sacks and boast an edge-rushing trio of Za'Darius Smith, Matt Judon and the ageless Terrell Suggs, all of whom have recorded seven sacks so far this year. The Ravens strangely have recorded the second fewest takeaways in the NFL despite their very aggressive approach to defense. (For more on the Ravens' strengths and weaknesses, read this week's Scouting Report.)
Sunday's game will pit the league's second-ranked offense against its second-ranked defense, in terms of yards. Here are five more specific issues to consider while waiting for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Ravens contest:
1. How will the Ravens utilize quarterbacks Lamar Jackson and Joe Flacco, and how difficult will that combo be for the Bucs' offense?
As noted above, Flacco is expected to be active on Sunday against the Buccaneers after missing four games, but Head Coach John Harbaugh announced on Wednesday that Jackson will continue to start. While Flacco was at the helm for the first nine games of the season, the Ravens still put their rookie on the field or a handful of plays, often using him to run the ball. The Buccaneers know they have to prepare for the same approach, only with the roles reversed.
"What they're doing with Lamar Jackson, you've got to prepare for that," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "If they bring [Joe] Flacco in, then we'll have to adjust to what they're doing. He's been out – hasn't played in the last four games. It's not like he forgot to play or anything. [They're] totally different and the thing that's most unique obviously is the things they're doing with Jackson. That's the stuff that we've got to spend some time on."
What the Bucs specifically had to prepare for, more so than any other week this season, was designed running plays for the quarterback, and plays in which Jackson could choose to give the ball up or keep it himself. The Ravens have molded their offense around the rookie's greatest strength at this point in his career and have averaged a robust 227.5 rushing yards per game in Jackson's starts.
"Huge challenge," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "Since Lamar's gotten in that offense and got it rolling they're averaging over 200 yards [rushing]. I think the least they've had I think is 198 and I think they've had 265 as the most. They're running the offense at a very productive rate right now and it's a big, big challenge. It's going to be 11-man football – as it always is – but you've got a runner and a thrower with the capability of Lamar Jackson. It's tough sledding. We're working like heck getting ready for it."
The Buccaneers have advantage of four games worth of tape on what the Ravens have done with Jackson. Of course, just knowing the ways that the Ravens may utilize his running ability doesn't definitely mean they can stop it.
"That's why their rushing numbers have shot up and they're over 200 yards a game is because you've got to contain him," said Koetter. "They have a really good downhill running game that hits you quick and then they play-action and bootleg off of it. Even when you think you've got it contained, when you look at the tape, he just out runs containment sometimes. Teams aren't used to seeing a guy with his speed. They feel like they've got him boxed in and he gets around it. Then they also run him inside your contain. If your try to get your contain too wide, they have plays where he'll go inside of it with a lead blocker."
2. Can Tampa Bay's offensive line slow down a Ravens pass rush that has produced almost exactly three sacks per game?
The Ravens have a varied blitz scheme and a very aggressive approach, but they can also create pressure with a four-man rush, especially when it's disguised to look like something else. The trio of seven-sack men noted earlier bring much of the pressure but it's the strength of the defense as a whole that creates a lot of their opportunities.
"They have good players, number one," said Koetter. "They've got really good players. They've got multiple guys that can win one-on-one pass rush. They have big guys on the interior that can push the pocket. They have fast, athletic linebackers. They have long corners who can hold up in press coverage and they have two experienced safeties who've seen a lot of NFL football. Their package fits well with their personnel and they're not afraid to play zero coverage. They'll bring it all."
Tampa Bay's offense ranks 15th in the NFL in sacks allowed per pass play, dropping down the list a bit after letting the Saints get Jameis Winston down four times in last Sunday's loss. After posting a season-low 279 yards and just 14 points against the New Orleans, the Buccaneers will need better protection in Baltimore in order to produce closer to their 2018 norms. Of course, an aggressive defense can provide an offense with big-play opportunities if the protection does hold up. For example, the Ravens sacked Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes three times and hit him 15 times in Week 14 but Mahomes still threw for 377 yards and two touchdowns and the Chiefs put up 442 yards of total offense in a three-point win.
"We work a lot on pressure every week," said Koetter. "From an offensive standpoint, if a team's pressuring you, your objective is to make them pay for bringing that pressure. Different schemes, different match ups, different personnel. I don't know if you could draw a parallel that's helping us or not. The Saints were an aggressive defense also – that's true."
3. Will Jameis Winston rebound with another strong performance after struggling with his accuracy in the last game?
Since returning to the starting lineup three games ago, fourth-year quarterback Jameis Winston has done an excellent job of protecting the football. His only turnover in that span was an interception on a desperation pass into the end zone with one second left against the Saints. It was not, as had been the case with some of his 12 interceptions earlier in the season, the result of a poor decision.
However, Winston's passing in Week 14 wasn't as pinpoint as it had been in his previous two starts. He had completed 72.1% of his passes in wins over the 49ers and Panthers but was good on just 18 of 38 attempts against the Saints, for a 47.4% completion rate. After posting three consecutive games with a passer rating higher than 110 (including a relief effort against the Giants in Week 11), but that figure fell to 71.5 in Week 14.
Even after last week's performance, Winston is completing a career-best 64.8% of his passes in 2018, and he has not dropped below 50% in any other game this season. He's likely to bounce back in that regard, but how far will probably depend upon the answer to the question above. Another factor that could affect the accuracy of not only Winston but any passer in Sunday's game is the weather, as there is the possibility of rain in Baltimore on game day. The Buccaneers practiced in a downpour on Friday, giving them some useful work with a wet football.
4. Can the Bucs keep special teams from being an advantage for the Ravens?
Harbaugh was a longtime special teams coordinator before taking over in Baltimore, so perhaps it's no surprise that his team excels in that phase of the game. Justin Tucker, the NFL's best kicker in recent seasons, has made 26 of 28 field goal attempts on all but one of his 32 extra point tries. Punter Sam Koch is averaging 47.4 yards per punt, with a net of 40.1. Return man Cyrus Jones is averaging 16.1 yards per punt runback.
Special teams did not provide the Buccaneers an advantage in the loss to New Orleans. A blocked Bryan Anger punt midway through the third quarter swung the momentum in the Saints' favor and it never turned back. The Bucs were winning 14-3 at the time the New Orleans scored the last 25 points of the game. In addition, kicker Cairo Santos hit a 46-yard field goal off the right upright in the first quarter and pushed a 40-yard try wide to the right in the third period.
That's the first punt Anger has had blocked in 2018, and he's been a dependable kicker once again this year. The Bucs' coverage units have been solid throughout the campaign and Santos had made his first three field goals since joining the Buccaneers before those two misfires. Santos has also made all 13 of his extra point tries after the man he replaced, Chandler Catanzaro missed on four of his 27 attempts. The Buccaneers will hope for better all-around results in the kicking game on Sunday in Baltimore, and that could end up being a deciding factor in the outcome.
5. Will the Bucs continue their turnaround in the turnover department and win that battle for the fourth game in a row?
The best thing the Buccaneers did during their just-completed 2-1 homestand was correct their persistent turnover-ratio problem. Over their previous seven games, the Buccaneers had forced just one turnover, on special teams, while giving it away 23 times. However, Tampa Bay had two interceptions without turning it over in a win over the 49ers and followed up with four picks off Carolina's Cam Newton against a lone lost fumble. Even with Winston's last-second pick last Sunday against the Saints, the Bucs still won the turnover battle in that game, 2-1.
They have an opportunity to make it four games in a row on Sunday, if only because Baltimore's excellent defense has surprisingly recorded very few takeaways this season. The Ravens have six interceptions and four fumble recoveries, and only the 49ers have taken it away fewer times overall.
"t's a little bit strange that I think they're top 10 in like 10 defensive categories including number one in points and they're second to last in takeaways," said Koetter. "Normally that would not go together – can't really explain it. All you've got to do is look at all those other numbers and it's pretty easy to see they're a really good defense. They're one of the best in the league – as good as we've seen."
While suffering through that two-month takeaway drought, the Buccaneers repeatedly mused that turnovers tend to come in bunches, and once they finally created a few they would get on a roll. That has happened over the last three weeks; can the Bucs continue in that direction in Baltimore?