The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Seattle Seahawks on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff at CenturyLink Field in Seattle. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Shaquil Barrett. Jason Pierre-Paul led off this group of five last week in anticipation of his 2019 debut, and he was indeed worth paying close attention to in Tennessee. Pierre-Paul had a sack on his very first defensive snap after returning from an offseason neck injury, and he later added three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits while playing over 70% of the snaps. Notably, however, Barrett also collected a sack, his first in three games, even though his percentage of playing time was his lowest in any game so far this season. Pierre-Paul's return is not going to minimize Barrett, who remains tied with Cleveland's Myles Garrett for the NFL sack lead. Rather, Pierre-Paul's presence should help the other edge rushers have fresher legs late in games and get more one-on-one pass-rush opportunities. It will be interesting to see if last week's performance will prove to be the start of another ultra-productive run like the one Barrett had in September.
Chris Godwin. Is it his turn? In Week Three of this season, wide receiver Mike Evans had one of the biggest games of his career, catching eight passes against the Giants for 190 yards and two touchdowns. Tampa Bay's next two opponents – the Rams and Saints – quite noticeably paid extra coverage attention to Evans and Godwin responded with 327 yards and four touchdowns in those contests. Both Evans and Godwin had big days against Carolina but last Sunday's contest in Tennessee was a near carbon copy for Evans of his Giants outing: 11-198-2. Will the Seahawks, whose pass defense has given up 273.0 yards per game this season, make an effort to keep Evans double-covered as much as possible. If so, the pendulum could swing back to Godwin, who is actually the team's leading receiver with 47 catches for 705 yards and two touchdowns.
Carlton Davis. Carlton Davis had one of the more eventful games of his young career in Tennessee, breaking up three passes and also snaring a pair of interceptions that were subsequently erased by penalties. The Buccaneers are hoping to get more turnovers and big plays out of their secondary, and Davis being around the football more is a good start. In this game he'll get opportunities to cover the small but quick and sure-handed Tyler Lockett as well as rookie D.K. Metcalf, who is raw but has great speed and is ripped. Davis never shies away from a physical battle with an opposing receiver, but he'll also have to make sure those two fast receivers don't get behind him for big plays.
Cameron Brate. Tight end O.J. Howard was ruled out of Sunday's game on Sunday, meaning he'll miss his second consecutive contest due to a hamstring injury. Brate is also dealing with a ribs ailment but was able to get in some practice work this week and has a chance to suit up against the Seahawks. The Bucs hedged their best this week by promoting Jordan Leggett from the practice squad but would feel better having Brate on the field, given his very good chemistry with quarterback Jameis Winston and his previous good work in the red zone. Brate played by far his highest percentage of snaps last week against the Titans even though he twice came off the field due to injuries. Brate also had a season-high six targets in that game, and while that led to just 32 receiving yards and no scores, there is reason to believe his production will rise in Week Nine. The Bucs' offense may need it to do so after struggling to find a good third option beyond Evans and Brate this season.
T.J. Logan. A waiver claim at the start of the season, Logan has been the Buccaneers' kickoff return man since Week One, but the impact of that job has been lessoned by rule changes that make touchbacks far more common. Last week, Logan also took over as the punt returner after the team released Bobo Wilson, and in that role he had an immediate impact, giving the Bucs their longest return in two years, a 40-yarder that set up a second-quarter field goal. Head Coach Bruce Arians had Logan on his team when he was in Arizona and had believed the young running back could produce big plays in the kicking game. After the Tennessee game, Arians said Logan was "what I thought he'd be" and suggested that he will continue to get opportunities to make an impact. "He made the best of his opportunity, and he'll keep doing it as a cover guy and as a returner," said the coach.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 55.7. That's the average number of rushing yards the Buccaneers' defense is giving up to opposing running backs, in particular, this season. That's the lowest total in the NFL, as is the 2.95 yards per carry that opposing backs are averaging. This week, that defense will take on Seattle's Chris Carson, who hasn't been held to a rushing total that low in any of the Seahawks' last five games. In that span, Carson is averaging almost exactly 100 rushing yards per game and he's picking it up at a pace of roughly 4.4 yards per handoff. Seattle has an MVP candidate at quarterback in Russell Wilson, and he can certainly take over a game with his right arm, but the Bucs would at least like to make his offense as one-dimensional as possible.
· 69.4/67.4. Don't let Seattle's offense get too deep in your territory, because at a certain point it becomes a train that is too hard to slow down. That first number is the percentage of Seattle drives penetrating the opposition's 30-yard line that end in touchdowns; the second number is the same thing for drives that get past the 20. The Seahawks rank first in the former category and second in the latter, and they are well above the league averages of 51.9% and 55.0%. One reason for that success: They still haven't turned the ball over after getting inside the 30.
· 105/108. The Buccaneers' offense has moved the ball relatively well in 2019, with the offensive output sometimes limited by turnovers and third-down miscues. With Godwin leading the way, the Buccaneers are particularly good at moving the sticks in the passing game. Tampa Bay's 105 passing first downs rank eighth in the NFL but first among teams that have only played seven games so far. Meanwhile, Seattle's defense has allowed 108 passing first downs, which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
· +7/-5. We don't always have to dig very deep to find the stats that matter the most in an upcoming matchup. Most fans could probably guess those numbers are the respective turnover ratios for the 5-2 Seahawks and the 2-5 Buccaneers. It's no stretch to suggest those disparate numbers are the main factor in the two teams' records being reversed. The Buccaneers actually were on the plus side of this ledger until very recently, but 11 giveaways in the last two games changed that in a hurry. The Bucs are determined to clean up their turnover issues, and that would make a victory in Seattle a much more attainable goal.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· It looks like the Buccaneers will have their original offensive starting lineup intact again in Week Nine. Right tackle Demar Dotson returned last week after missing one contest with a hamstring strain, and while he was limited in practice all week he did not have a game status designation (questionable, etc.) on Friday's injury report. The same is true for starting right guard Alex Cappa, who missed the last two games due to a fracture in his forearm. Cappa returned to full participation by Friday's practice and thus should be good to go on Sunday.
· Seattle rookie Marquise Blair, the 47th overall pick in this year's draft, appears to have a solidified a spot in the Seahawks' secondary. He started the last two games in place of veteran Tedric Thompson, and now Seattle has placed Thompson on injured reserve. The Seahawks are getting former Buccaneer Bradley McDougald back from injury, but Blair should remain in the other starting spot, where he has shown in the last two outings that he can dole out some big hits.
· Tampa Bay didn't change its starting lineup in the secondary last week but they did tweak their cornerback rotation. Vernon Hargreaves continued to start opposite Carlton Davis in the base package, but he moved into the slot in sub packages with rookie Sean Murphy-Bunting coming in on the outside. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles says that the Bucs have a variety of cornerback combinations they use, including some with two nickel corners.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE SEAHAWKS
The Seahawks' offense presents a balanced attack that is running the ball on just under 50% of its plays and is ranked 10th in the league in rushing yards and 13th in passing yards. Eighth-year quarterback Russell Wilson runs the offense with confidence and precision and is capable of converting key third downs with both his arm and his legs. Seattle's defense isn't quite as stingy as it was in its legendary Legion of Boom days but it has created 15 turnovers and it has five different players with multiple sack totals. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Wilson leads the NFL with a 115.5 passer rating, which would double as a career high if he can maintain it through the season. The Buccaneers would like to put pressure on Wilson, obviously, but would be well-served to do so without having to bring extra rushers. The problem is that Wilson actually gets better when he's blitzed, at least this year. His passer rating when facing blitzers goes up to 125.1, with nine touchdowns and just one interception in such instances. (To be fair, that is the only interception he's thrown in 2019.) Wilson can also run in such situations – he has 182 yards on the ground in 2019, plus three touchdowns, and he's closing in on 4,000 for his career. On 11 different scrambles this year Wilson has picked up a new set of downs for his team. The challenge for the Bucs' defense is to pressure Wilson but also to contain him as much as possible.
Though much of the defensive personnel has changed for Seattle since their Super Bowl years of 2013 and 2014, linebacker Bobby Wagner is still right in the middle of everything, and he's still playing at as high of a level as ever in his eighth season. The Seahawks drafted Wagner in the second round in 2012, right before they snapped up Russell Wilson in the third round, and in both cases they got the same thing: a quarterback who commands his side of the ball with precision. Wagner is a very smart player and he does a great job of getting everyone else in position. He's also a hard-hitter and a sure tackler with more than 1,000 career stops. Just like when they play Luke Kuechly and the Panthers, the Buccaneers have to be aware of Wagner's presence on every offensive snap.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On whether a culture change leads to winning in the NFL, or vice versa:
"Winning is the culture. We've had our chances to put a few together. You just look back at that Carolina win, how we won, then we miss a kick to win it [in Week 3]. It's a whole different culture in this building when you start putting them together, so we've got to rebound from that and grow from it. It's stacking them together, and that's when that momentum builds, that's when that belief builds and that's when you have a culture change."