The Tampa Bay Buccaneers (3-5) return to the comforts of home, with the 5-3 Washington Redskins visiting on Sunday and making their second straight visit to an NFC South venue. Last week's game at Atlanta went poorly for the Redskins, who lost by a 38-14 margin and also saw both of their starting guards go down with season-ending injuries. However, Washington remains in first place in the NFC East by a half-game over Philadelphia, while the Buccaneers head into the season's second half hoping to get back in the Wild Card race.
Washington's offense centers around rejuvenated running back Adrian Peterson and the efficient passing attack of Alex Smith. While the Redskins are beat up on that side of the ball, they bring a healthy, top-10 defense to Raymond James Stadium, one led by pass-rushing linebackers Ryan Kerrigan and Matt Ioannidis, who have combined for 12 sacks. The Redskins have also protected the ball well, with only seven turnovers, in stark contrast to the Buccaneers' most pressing issue. Tampa Bay will likely need to get back on the right side of the takeaway ledger in order to start a winning streak on Sunday.
In fact, that is the first of five specific issues we'll throw out for your consideration as we wait for the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff of Sunday's Bucs-Redskins contest:
1. Can the Buccaneers finally put an end to a takeaway drought that is rapidly becoming remarkable?
The last takeaway by Tampa Bay's defense came on September 24, in the first quarter of a Week Three Monday night game against Pittsburgh, as safety Justin Evans intercepted Ben Roethlisberger. Since then, the Bucs have forced one turnover, a fumble on a punt return in an overtime win over Cleveland in Week Seven. The Bucs have never before gone five straight games without its defense, specifically, forcing a turnover.
There's little argument that this lack of takeaways, paired with enough giveaways to make the Buccaneers last in the league in turnover differential, at -15, is the main problem holding the team back. The coaches definitely know it.
"That's probably the number-one stat in ball," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "We've all talked it, I think you all know it, you can see the stats. Our players understand that – more than sacks, more than rushing yards, more than anything else, you win the takeaway battle you have the best chance to win the games. We're relentless about doing it in practice and we're anxious to see it start carrying over in games."
Washington won't make it easy, as we noted above. Of their seven giveaways, only three are interceptions. Quarterback Alex Smith has avoided turnovers well throughout his career, never throwing more than 16 in a season and not even hitting double digits in a campaign since 2010, even though he's been a starter that entire time.
"That's probably the thing he does best," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "That's probably why he's had the successful career he's had. He takes care of the ball. He takes very little risk. That doesn't mean that doesn't win. His record speaks for itself – he's won a lot of games – but Alex Smith from whenever he started clear back with Urban Meyer, University of Utah, he has done a great job of taking care of the football his entire career and that's why he's been a starting quarterback for 14 years."
Still, Buccaneer defenders do believe they can get back to forcing turnovers in bunches, as they did through much of the previous two seasons, and they have relatively recent experience from which to draw.
"In 2016, when we got on that run, in that span we took the ball away more than any team in the NFL," said defensive tackle Gerald McCoy. "If we are going to make a run, that's going to have to be a part of it. That starts with a mentality in practice, going after the ball from every level – D-Line, linebackers, DBs. I believe it is [happening in practice]. I don't know why it's not translating."
View photos from the Buccaneers' practice Thursday at the AdventHealth Training Center.
2. Will the Redskins scheme to attempt to take Mike Evans out of the center of the Bucs' passing attack, as Carolina successfully did last week?
Evans averaged 110 receiving yards per game through the Bucs' first seven contests, four times going over 100 yards. In the eighth game, at Carolina last Sunday, he was held to one catch for 16 yards.
Koetter indicated that Evans played uncharacteristically poorly and Evans didn't argue, also making a point to give credit to the game played by Carolina cornerback James Bradberry. It was also clear that the Panthers' defensive scheme was working hard to take away the Bucs' outside receivers, which led to a strategic shift and the big days by tight end O.J. Howard and slot receiver Adam Humphries.
Might the Redskins take a similar approach. It's worth noting that the Buccaneers still managed to record four touchdown passes, so the offense wasn't exactly kept in check. But it did take a while for Tampa Bay to get going, and the Redskins might believe they can force another slow start and get an early lead of their own.
Of course, Washington could try this approach but not necessarily succeed. The Bucs have a lot of ways to get the ball to Evans, and he can certainly win even in contested situations when he's on the top of his game. Koetter doesn't expect Evans to have any trouble shaking off the last game and getting back in the groove he'd been in the rest of the season.
"One thing I would say that I'm really confident in Mike is his ability to bounce back," said Koetter. "I've seen him do it multiple times. Mike's going to have another good matchup. Mike sees the other team's best cover guy most weeks and he's been pretty successful doing it. I think Mike will be fine. I don't really have a good reason for what happened other than Bradberry had a good game against him last week."
Quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick doesn't anticipate ignoring Evans no matter what the Redskins do on defense.
"Mike's a guy that I've leaned on all year and continue to lean on," he said. "When you get those one-on-one matchups, Mike, we think, is up there in the top two or three guys in the league with what he can do. Where he goes, we go."
3. Will the Buccaneers be able to take advantage of Washington's mounting injury problems along the offensive line?
Every team in the NFL deals with multiple injured players on a weekly basis. What makes that more difficult is when injuries strike several players in the same position group, something the Buccaneers have dealt with at times the last couple seasons on the defensive line, at running back and in the secondary.
And that's what Washington is trying to overcome after losing both of its starting guards, Brandon Scherff and Shawn Lauvao to injured reserve this week. Starting left tackle Trent Williams will miss his second consecutive game due to a thumb injury and starting right tackle Morgan Moses is questionable for Sunday with a knee injury. The Redskins signed three linemen with NFL starting experience on Monday – Luke Bowanko, John Cooper and Austin Howard – and at least one of those three is likely to start against the Buccaneers.
Prior to the run of misfortune, Washington's offensive line was one of the most powerful in the league and the clear strength of its offense. Williams and Scherff are among the best in the NFL at their respective positions. It's hard to imagine that unit being as good after all this upheaval, but will it be enough of a deficiency to create pass-rushing and turnover opportunities for the Bucs' defense?
"It's a tough situation," said Koetter. "I have seen it before where you've had to bring a guy in and start him in the same week and I think Coach Gruden said that's what they might have to do this week. That just depends on the guys they've got. Looks to me like all the guys they've signed have starting experience, so usually those guys can get up to speed pretty quickly."
The Buccaneers are 2-1 this season when they've recorded three or more sacks in a game, but overall their pass-rush ranks 24th in the NFL in sacks created per pass play. New defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul has been a strong addition to the front line, leading the team with 8.0 sacks, but he was held without one for the first time in seven games last Sunday.
Regardless of how solid the Redskins' line is, Pierre-Paul knows it's his group that has to lead the way to better days for the Bucs' defense.
"It has to start up front," he said. "I think it's going to be up to the D-line and Coach [Brentson Buckner] always says, it's up to the D-line, that we're going to have to take it over from here, and I believe so. It always started with the D-line with the great wins in the Super Bowls and the playoff runs – we had the D-line going. I think for future reference you're going to see us getting after it."
4. Can the Bucs win the third phase of the game?
The Buccaneers tried a fake punt last Sunday but didn't quite pull it off. Otherwise, their efforts on special teams were solid without being the difference in the game. Chandler Catanzaro made all of his extra point attempts, Bryan Anger punted well (46.2 gross, 43.8 net, two inside the 20) and the return game was solid but not spectacular.
The two biggest plays the Buccaneers have made on special teams this season both came in overtime against the Browns, and they definitely made the difference in the final outcome. Antony Auclair forced a Jabrill Peppers fumble on a punt return and Isaiah Johnson recovered it, leading to the game-winning 59-yard field goal by Catanzaro. Otherwise, few of the Bucs' games have turned on the third phases of the game.
If the Buccaneers and Redskins play a close one on Sunday, that could change. Both teams kickers have been good on field goals, with Catanzaro making 10 of 12 and Washington's Dustin Hopkins hitting on 14 of 16. Hopkins has the edge on PATs – he hasn't missed while Catanzaro is 23 of 27. Anger and Washington punter Tress Way have very similar statistics and are good at getting it inside the 20. Neither team's return game has been dynamic.
If either the Buccaneers or Redskins take their overall special teams efforts from solid to spectacular on Sunday, that could make a big difference.
5. How well will the Bucs handle RB Adrian Peterson, who is the NFL's fifth-leading rusher?
Tampa Bay had the NFL's fourth-ranked rushing attack as recently as three games ago, but it has dropped to 10th after an up-and-down effort against Cincinnati's Joe Mixon and a run-in with the Panthers' creative and productive ground game. Now it faces a Washington team that is getting great production from 12th-year back Adrian Peterson and probably needs him more than ever this week.
Washington's receiving corps has not been particularly productive this season, and now it is without speedster Paul Richardson, who was lost to I.R. this week. Jamison Crowder has missed the last three games and is questionable for Sunday's trip to Raymond James Stadium. And the aforementioned offensive line woes probably make the Redskins even more eager to keep Alex Smith out of danger as much as possible. A strong ground game would help with that immensely.
Of course, that makeshift line could have as many problems opening running lanes as protecting Smith. Athletic players like Scherff and Lauvao allowed the Redskins to do some specific things to spring Peterson for big gains. Without them and Trent Williams, Washington may have fewer wrinkles in their ground-game playbook this week.