The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Houston Texans on Saturday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Breshad Perriman. He's the hottest name on the fantasy football waiver wire and there's a good reason: Perriman is now the number-one receiver for the top-ranked passing attack in the NFL. He's catching footballs from a red-hot quarterback who is coming off the first pair of consecutive 450-yard passing games in NFL history. Last week in Detroit, that translated into a career-high 113 yards and three touchdowns. Over his last three games, Perriman has eight receptions of 20 or more yards, and last Sunday he became the first Buccaneer ever to catch three touchdown passes of 25 or more yards in the same game. Of course, one reason that Perriman plays in the league's top-ranked passing attack is because that offense featured two Pro Bowl wide receivers, Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, for most of the season. Now both are out, which means Perriman will be a key figure in keeping that offense in high gear. The Bucs have five healthy wideouts on their roster for Sunday's game; Perriman has 83 career NFL receptions, while the other four have combined for 10.
Shaquil Barrett. Two weeks in a row for Barrett in the Players to Watch? Sorry, we couldn't help ourselves. Last week, Barrett was on the verge of tying or breaking Warren Sapp's 19-year-old franchise single-season sack record, which obviously put him in the spotlight. Then he collected another sack in Detroit to give him an NFL-high 16.5 on the season, which is now tied with Sapp's record. That means the next time Barrett has a hand in any sack, half or full, he will be the team's new single-season sack king. Sapp himself has been urging Barrett on in his pursuit and this week he delivered a message to his fellow Buccaneer star: Your work isn't done. That's true in terms of the record but also in terms of Barrett's attempt to be the first Buccaneer ever to lead the NFL in sacks, and even in the chase for the NFL Defensive Player of the Year award. Barrett also has a lot of work ahead of him on Sunday merely in terms of chasing the Texans' very mobile quarterback, Deshaun Watson. Watson has been sacked 39 times this season but he's also quite capable of escaping pressure and making big plays with his arm and his feet. Barrett and company will be looking to get Watson on the ground but, just as importantly, keep him in the pocket.
O.J. Howard. Theoretically, the Buccaneers' rash of injuries at the receiver position would seem to make Howard a more central figure in the passing attack on Saturday. After all, he can run routes like a fast receiver and make plays downfield, even in traffic. Of course, Offensive Coordinator Byron Leftwich noted on Wednesday that he and Jameis Winston can't try to force the ball to Howard or any one target if the defense isn't allowing it. Still, the athletic third-year tight end is likely to get his share of passes Saturday. Howard's production hasn't matched expectations for much of the year but he's picked it up of late, with yardage totals of 61, 73 and 46 over the last three games. Houston's defense has been vulnerable to the pass this season, allowing 266.1 yards per game and 7.21 yards per pass play to rank 28th and 22nd in those categories, respectively. The Texans will also be playing without one of their starting inside linebackers, Benardrick McKinney, who has three passes defensed on the season. Howard and fellow tight end Cam Brate could be a critical part of the Bucs' offense on Saturday and Leftwich may choose to employ a lot of two-tight end sets.
Sean Murphy-Bunting. The second-round draft pick out of Central Michigan had a wonderful homecoming to the state of Michigan in Week 15, sealing the Buccaneers' victory with a 70-yard pick-six, his first NFL score. Murphy-Bunting is tied for the NFL lead among rookies with three interceptions and is part of a very young secondary that has appeared to turn the corner in the season's final third. The Texans spend a majority of their time on offense in three-wide sets with the dangerous wideout trio of DeAndre Hopkins, Will Fuller and Kenny Stills, and that means the Bucs' primary defensive package on Saturday will be the nickel. Typically, Murphy-Bunting moves from the outside into the slot in that defense, and indeed it was from the slot that he got the interception in Detroit in front of Danny Amendola. However, that could change if Carlton Davis, who sustained an ankle injury in practice on Thursday is unable to play. The Bucs could choose to leave Murphy-Bunting outside the whole time, across from fellow rookie Jamel Dean, and seek another solution in the slot. No matter where he lines up, Murphy-Bunting is sure to draw some coverage duties on all three of those receivers because the Texans will put any one of them in the slot and run them out of a wide variety of alignments.
Donovan Smith OR Josh Wells. Last week, Smith saw his career-spanning streak of 77 consecutive starts come to an end and Wells became the first player other than Smith to open a Buccaneers game at left tackle since 2014. Wells had a shaky start with two penalties on the Bucs' first drive but then settled in nicely and drew postgame praise from both Arians and Winston for how he handled that critical position. Indeed, Winston was sacked only two times in 44 drop-backs and had plenty of time to repeatedly throw accurate downfield passes. Wells may get a second start on Saturday or Smith may return; he wanted very badly to play last week in Detroit and has had another short week to deal with knee and ankle injuries. However, he was limited in practice all week and was labeled as questionable on the final injury report of the week. Whoever mans that spot will get some work against the Texans' sack leader, Whitney Mercilus, particularly when the Bucs have the tight end over the right tackle. Mercilus generally rushes from the offense's weak side and he's a proven producer with an array of pass-rush moves. With Winston trying to operate with a group of mostly unproven receivers, it will help him tremendously if he has a clean pocket.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 46.1/48.0. Houston's offense has the NFL's fourth-best conversion rate on third down but the Texans defense has allowed the highest third-down rate in the league to opponents. Those are the two numbers above, and they're part of an overall trend for the Texans: As prolific as their offense has been, the defense has generally given up matching numbers. That includes yards per game (375.9/379.4), first downs (311/302), completion percentage (67.6%/65.0%), yards per carry (4.8/4.6), passer rating (99.8/100.8) and even time of possession (29:58/30:02). All those numbers suggest the high probability of a shootout, but the Buccaneers' offense is down a few bullets. Can Winston and company keep up with Watson and his crew without such players as Evans and Godwin?
· 84/45. Tampa Bay's defense leads the NFL with 84 passes defensed, unsurprising given that they have two players in the top five in that category in Davis (18) and Dean (16). That wasn't the case, however, at the season's midway point. The Bucs had 39 passes defensed through their first eight games but they have had a league-high 45 through the last six games, of which they've won five, in large part due to a much tighter pass defense. The Bucs also have six of their 11 interceptions in the last five games, and turnover margin could potentially be the deciding factor on Saturday.
· 116/102. Despite having a -8 turnover ratio that is tied for 27th in the NFL, the Buccaneers have scored a league-high 116 points off turnovers this year and are averaging a superb 4.6 points scored per takeaway. The other nine teams in the top 10 in that category all have winning records. The problem, of course, is that Tampa Bay has also allowed 102 points off turnovers, which is second-most in the NFL. Two weeks ago, the Buccaneers somehow overcame a 4-1 turnover differential and 17 points allowed off those giveaways to nip the Indianapolis Colts. To take down their third AFC South team in a row, the Bucs will likely need to be on the other end of those differentials.
· 26/8. Deshaun Watson has 26 touchdown passes, which is tied for the fourth-most in the NFL, but that only describes half of the problem of defending the dynamic Houston passer. Watson has also scored eight touchdowns himself, seven on runs and even one on a pass from his favorite target, DeAndre Hopkins. The Bucs have the NFL's top run defense by a good margin and they have been a terror against opposing running backs, but mobile quarterbacks have created a few problems for them during the last month. Watson could be a major challenge for the Buccaneers' defense when he's on the move.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· With Mike Evans and Scotty Miller on injured reserve and Chris Godwin in active – all due to recent hamstring injuries – the Buccaneers will likely start Breshad Perriman and Justin Watson at the two receiver spots. The rest of the group will be made up of Ishmael Hyman, just promoted from the practice squad last week, and two Week 16 additions in Spencer Schnell and Cyril Grayson.
· Houston will be without starting ILB Benardrick McKinney, who is out due to a concussion. This will be the first start McKinney has missed since late in his 2015 rookie season, snapping a streak of 62 in a row. McKinney is second on Houston's defense with 102 tackles. There are two reserve inside linebackers on Houston's depth chart, Peter Kalambayi and Tyrell Adams, and neither has started an NFL game.
· In addition to Justin Watson, who has handled punt returns in the last two games since the season-ending thumb injury to T.J. Logan, the Buccaneers now have a couple more potential options for that job. Schnell has extensive punt return experience from his days at Illinois State, and former track star Grayson has the top-level speed that could be intriguing in that role.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE TEXANS
Houston has a balanced and explosive offense that is averaging 131 rushing yards per game but also has a dangerous three-receiver set with Hopkins, Fuller and Stills. Watson makes it all go with his passing and running skills and the Texans are 10th in the league in scoring with 24.4 points per play. They also excel on third downs as noted above, and are one of the best red zone teams in the league on offense. The Texans' defense is playing without superstar J.J. Watt and has a largely remade secondary, and while the results have been up and down that unit is coming off a strong game in a huge win over Tennessee. Mercilus leads the team with 5.5 sacks and Tashaun Gipson is the top interceptor, with three. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Carlos Hyde was the second running back the Texans traded for over the summer but he has had the biggest impact and last week he surpassed 1,000 rushing yards for the first time in his career. Big and strong, Hyde is averaging 4.6 yards per carry and is a perfect complement to that other trade acquisition, Duke Johnson, the team's third-leading pass-catcher. Opposing defenses would like to make the Texans' offense one-dimensional so that they can put more of their focus on containing Watson, but Hyde has made that difficult to do. He's running behind a line that has done a good job of opening up holes up the middle, as the Texans are averaging 6.12 yards over left guard, 5.17 over right guard and 4.78 right up the middle. Of their 383 runs, the largest group has been up-the-middle carries, with 102 of them in that direction. Of course, that will be running into the strength of the Buccaneer's defense, as Vita Vea and Ndamukong Suh have made that part of the field nearly impenetrable for opposing backs. Tampa Bay's defense ranks first in yards allowed both up the middle (2.18) and over left guard (1.88).
The Texans will be without one of their starting inside linebackers, Benardrick McKinney, but it almost seems as if the other one, Zach Cunningham, could cover the whole field by himself. A tackling machine, Cunningham ranks fifth in the NFL with 128 total tackles, but that's only the beginning of how he has filled up a stat line this season. A Pro Bowl alternate, Cunningham has racked up two sacks, seven tackles for loss, three quarterback hits, one pass defensed and two fumble recoveries. The Texans don't ask Cunningham to shoulder too much responsibility in coverage but he's one of the league's best run defenders with 90 tackles on rushing plays. His fellow Texans defenders voiced their opinion this week that he was a Pro Bowl snub, and that could add fuel to his already fiery playing style. With their suddenly-unproven receiving corps, the Bucs could use some more juice out of a relatively sluggish rushing attack but they'll have to keep Cunningham away from their backs if they want to accomplish that.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On if the play-calling will have to be more conservative on Sunday with so many new and inexperienced pass-catchers now in the mix:
"No, the guys that have been here – you put them in positions [that] you think they can do it and be successful. Just give Jameis the trust to go through his progressions and his reads and trust who is out there."