The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Tennessee Titans on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Nissan Stadium. After a rejuvenating bye week and an extra-long week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Jason Pierre-Paul. After Pierre-Paul had no trouble practicing all week and was cleared by a specialist after Friday's workout, the team happily activated their 2018 sack leader from the reserve/NFI list. He is expected to make his 2019 debut on Sunday against the Titans, though it's a decent bet that the team will ramp up his playing time gradually. Pierre-Paul may not be able to match the 12.5 sacks he had last year, having already missed six contests, but his presence alone should help amplify the Bucs' defensive pressure overall. There's a lot to consider when watching Pierre-Paul in his first game back: How much will he play? How rusty will he be? How much attention will he draw from the opposing team in contrast to his teammates on the line? Will that attention create some better rush opportunities for Shaq Barrett, Carl Nassib and Ndamukong Suh? Just like rookie DL Jeffery Simmons was an instant difference-maker in his debut for Tennessee last week, coming back from an ACL tear, the Bucs hope Pierre-Paul makes an immediate impact on their defense.
Demar Dotson. Dotson was questionable on Friday's injury report and was surely the player Arians was referring to when he mentioned game-time decisions after the last week of the practice. Assuming he returns to the lineup at right tackle, the Buccaneers will be hoping that his presence helps stop the leaks that have contributed to 13 sacks of Jameis Winston in the past two games. It will be a significant challenge against a Tennessee defense that has recorded 19 sacks, including 6.5 combined from edge rushers Harold Landry and Cameron Wake. If Dotson isn't ready to go by Sunday – he was limited in each practice this week while returning from a hamstring injury – the team would once again turn to Josh Wells, who got the start in London against Carolina before the bye.
Lavonte David. Titans RB Derrick Henry is a big, bruising running back who is tough to bring down (more on that below) but he's also got deceptive speed and is very good on screen passes. All of these things are concerns for David, the veteran linebacker at the heart of the Buccaneers' defense. David leads the team with 41 tackles, 24 of which have come on running plays. David has benefitted from the excellent work up front of linemen Suh, Vita Vea and Will Gholston, which has freed him up to shoot gaps and make plays around the line of scrimmage. David is also an important part of the team's pass defense when opposing teams throw it to their running backs, and 17 of his stops have come in the passing game. He also has two passes defensed and an interception. If the Buccaneers are to keep Henry from hurting them with the big plays he's become known for in the past two seasons, they will likely need David to lead the charge.
Mike Evans. Evans came back from the bye week saying he had a chance to reset and felt close to 100% to start the season's final 10-game stretch. He's well on pace for another 1,000-yard season but he things he can be even more productive in the season's second half. "There's plays that I need to make and plays I will make in the future, plays I'm definitely capable of making," he said. "I will be making those plays." Evans forms half of the NFL's most productive duo of wideouts along with Chris Godwin, and it's often the choices that the opposing defense makes that dictate which one will get the more opportunistic looks. In the Titans' case, they have strong outside cornerbacks in Malcolm Butler and Logan Ryan, and according to Football Outsiders they ranks seventh in the league in defending both the number-one and number-two receivers for the opposition.
Sean Murphy-Bunting. The rookie second-round pick has taken over from M.J. Stewart as the slot corner and according to Bruce Arians has been playing "really solid" in that role for the past two games. The Buccaneers are relying on a lot of young players in their secondary and Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles said the team used the bye week to pinpoint problem areas for that group, particularly in terms of communication. The Bucs expect improvements in those areas to result in tighter coverage, and Murphy-Bunting will have his hands full in the slot this week with former Buccaneer Adam Humphries. In his limited play so far, the rookie corner has five tackles, one interception and two passes defensed.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 22.6. The Titans have allowed a league-high 31 sacks and a league-worst 15.12% sacks-per-pass-play rate. Their quarterbacks have suffered for that pressure, even when they get the ball off and avoid the sack. According to NFL stat service SportRadar, Titans passers have a passer rating of 22.6 when they are pressured (hit, hurried or knocked down) on the throw. That's the fourth-worst mark in the NFL.
· 59/5. The Buccaneers have an unfavorable turnover ratio (-2) but they have made the most of their takeaways when they've gotten them. Tampa Bay has scored 59 points off of either returns of fumbles or interceptions or the drives that followed a takeaway, and that's the most in the entire NFL. Unfortunately this week, Tennessee has not shown itself to be too prone to turnovers. The Titans have only coughed up five times, leading to one touchdown.
· 24.1. That's the average yard line at which opposing teams have started their offensive drives against the Titans, the best mark for any defense/special teams unit in the NFL. Part of that is the good placement work of punter Brett Kern, who has dropped 25 of his 42 punts inside the opposing 20 already this year. The Titans also have produced touchbacks on 69.0% of their kickoffs and have given up an average kickoff drive start of the 23.8-yard line, which is fifth-best. Opposing teams are averaging just 20.9 yards per kickoff return against the Titans.
· 397. Derrick Henry, the Titans' 6-3, 247-pound running back, is not an easy man to bring down, even if he is averaging a surprisingly-low 3.7 yards per carry so far this year. Henry has 506 total rushing yards and a whopping 397 of them have come after contact. That's the third-most rushing yards after contact by any player in the NFL so far. Among qualifying rushers, Henry has by far the highest percentage of yards after contact, at 78.5%. As a contrasting example, NFL leading rusher Dalvin Cook has 823 yards, 406 of them (49.3%) after contact. Tampa Bay has the NFL's leading rush defense, allowing 68.0 yards per game and 2.89 yards per carry, but its rushing YAC allowed percentage of 58.8% (240 of the 408 yards allowed) is actually third-worst in the NFL. Sound tackling will be a serious issue on Sunday.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· While Dotson has a good chance to return to the starting lineup after missing one game with a hamstring injury, the Buccaneers are still missing right guard Alex Cappa, who was ruled out on Friday's injury report. Veteran Earl Watford will make his second start at that spot in Cappa's place.
· The Buccaneers will have a new punt returner on Sunday following the release of Bobo Wilson, but the team has chosen not to reveal who that will be just yet. Arians indicated earlier that cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, running back/kickoff returner T.J. Logan and wide receiver Scotty Miller were among the candidates.
· Starting tight end O.J. Howard did not practice on Thursday or Friday due to a hamstring injury and has been ruled out for the game. This could lead to the regular-season debut of first-year tight end Tanner Hudson, who was inactive for each of the first six games. Hudson was second among all NFL players in the preseason with 245 receiving yards on 19 receptions, and he led the league with three touchdown catches.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE TITANS
The Titans are 3-4 but are coming off a win in the first start by quarterback Ryan Tannehill, who has replaced former first-round pick Marcus Mariota. Another first-round pick, Corey Davis, had one of his best games of the season in the team's win over the Chargers and might be able to unlock more of his sizeable potential if he establishes a quick rapport with Tannehill. On defense, the Titans have been strong in nearly every category and have allowed only 16.0 points per game. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
We discussed the difficulty of bringing down Henry above, and the Titans would surely love to establish a power running game early. But Tannehill also has a nice variety of targets to which to distribute the ball, and they all have different skill sets. The Bucs obviously know how good Humphries is at taking short passes and turning them into nice gains by weaving through the blockers arranged in front of him on screens. Rookie A.J. Brown has a game like that of Chris Godwin and is the team's leader with 337 yards; he is very good after the catch. Davis is big and fast, which is why he was once the fifth-overall pick in the draft. Henry already has a 75-yard touchdown on a screen pass this season and running back Dion Lewis is a good pass-catcher. Even if tight end Delanie Walker is out or limited by injury, the Titans will be able to spread the field and stress the Bucs' coverage schemes, especially if Tannehill is given a good amount of time to throw. Keeping that coverage tight as long as possible will be difficult but important.
Keith Byard is one of the most complete safeties in the NFL and is part of an experienced Titans secondary that is allowing just 6.60 yards per pass play, 10th-lowest in the NFL. Byard already has three picks this season and, remarkably, has snared 15 interceptions to lead the league since the start of the 2017 season. He obviously has elite ball skills and is quick to diagnose what the opposing quarterback is trying to do. Jameis Winston had five interception in last outing but had been secure with the football the previous four games, with two picks combined in that stretch. The Buccaneers want to see that version of Winston on Sunday and the rest of the way, and the fifth-year passer will have to be aware of Byard's location in order to make that happen.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On wanting to keep Titans RB Derrick Henry from getting into the open field:
"Yeah, because this cat's really fast. [If] you give him a crease, he can take it to the house. He's different, more like [Todd Gurley] – you've got to get him, and get him before he gets started. He's a really good outside-zone screen runner, and they play to his strengths."