The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Las Vegas Raiders on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 4:05 p.m. ET kickoff at Allegiant Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
OLB Jason Pierre-Paul. Unlike a lot of the Bucs' stalwart veteran defenders and emerging young defensive backs, Pierre-Paul already had NFL star power when he arrived in Tampa in 2018 through a trade with the Giants. Now, as the Bucs' fast start and the presence of Tom Brady have succeeded in drawing a lot more national attention to the team, buzz is starting to build around such defenders as Carlton Davis III, Jamel Dean, Devin White and (finally!) Lavonte David. At the same time, Pierre-Paul probably isn't getting as much appreciation as he should for his hot start to the 2020 campaign. The veteran edge rusher leads the Buccaneers and ranks fourth in the NFL with 5.5 sacks and he's had at least one sack in five of the team's six games so far. Pierre-Paul is also tied for second, and just one off the league with three forced fumbles. Pierre-Paul already has 26.5 sacks, tied for ninth-most in franchise history, after just 30 games in Tampa. The Buccaneers' defense has the second-best sacks-per-pass-play rate in the league and Pierre-Paul has been a major reason why. He could have a major impact on Sunday's game if he gets to Carr, who's only been sacked eight times so far.
TE Rob Gronkowski. Last Sunday, the Buccaneers' game plan featured a bigger dose of Gronkowski in the passing attack than it had in any of the previous five outings. Gronkowski scored for the first time as a Buccaneer, on a nifty spinning catch right by the sideline, and led the team with eight targets and 78 receiving yards. Though he has said he has felt great since the beginning of the season, it's reasonable to expect the former all-pro to gradually get back closer to his former form as the season progresses, given that he is returning after a year away from the game. He's also likely to get more of the downfield routes and targets that would have gone to O.J. Howard had Howard not suffered a season-ending injury in Week Four. Gronkowski is a big asset to the Bucs' offense even when he's not catching passes thanks to his plus run-blocking, but his long-established rapport with Brady means we are likely to see several more games like the one he had against Green Bay. With Chris Godwin back in the lineup and Mike Evans closer to 100%, opposing defenses will find it harder to pay Gronkowski adequate attention while also trying to contain those outside receivers.
View some of the top photos from Buccaneers Week 7 practice at the AdventHealth Training Center.
CB Jamel Dean. Dean turned in the defensive play of the year so far for Tampa Bay when, with his team already down 10-0 early in the second quarter against Green Bay, he picked off an Aaron Rodgers pass and returned it 32 yads for a touchdown. That radically shifted the game's momentum and sparked a run of 38 unanswered points for the victorious Buccaneers. Since the start of the 2019 season, Dean's rookie campaign, the only player in the NFL with more than his 23 passes defensed is his teammate, Carlton Davis, with 29. James Bradberry and Logan Ryan of the Giants also have 23 in that span. The major difference: Those other three corners have also logged between 685 and 915 more snaps than Dean. Fast, athletic and with great length, Dean is making the most of his playing time as the Bucs' outside corner when Sean Murphy-Bunting moves into the slot. The Buccaneers are about to play a Raiders defense that features a lot of speed and has done well on the deep ball (more on that below) but Dean, who is one of the fastest cornerbacks in the NFL, has the wheels to keep up and make plays downfield.
RB Leonard Fournette. Fournette has missed the last two games with an ankle injury but it appears he will be back in the offensive mix on Sunday in Las Vegas. Said Head Coach Bruce Arians on Friday of the fourth-year back: "He's good to go. He's practiced full and he'll reassume his role. He's ready to go." Fournette's role prior to his injury was to serve as the primary complement to Ronald Jones in the run game, with LeSean McCoy serving as the third-down back. Fournette had 24 carries in the Bucs' first four games; no other Buc back has more than eight on the season. Jones is blistering hot, with three straight 100-yard rushing games, and figures to remain the central focus of the Bucs' rushing attack, but Fournette has already shown he can get in a groove and attract more carries, as he did with a 103-yard game on 12 carries in Week Two. Fournette did much of that damage against Carolina in the second half of a relatively tight game, and Arians remarked afterward about the advantage of having another back with fresh legs when the team is trying to hold onto a lead and grind out a win. Fournette is clearly eager to get back on the field, though he shared on Twitter that he understood why Arians took the cautious route in keeping him inactive last Sunday.
ILB Devin White. After a couple games with light stat lines, the Bucs' second-year linebacker was hoping to be "unleashed" in Week Six against the Packers. As it turned out, he got a large number of playmaking opportunities and unleashed himself. White announced that he was revving up for a big day when he sliced through a line of blockers on a sweep by Aaron Jones on the game's first play and dropped the Green Bay back for no gain. By game's end, White had racked up 10 tackles, one sack, three tackles for loss and two quarterback hits. He proved to be a big part of Todd Bowles' creative pass-rush package and made several play-altering dashes into the backfield. With the Raiders' offensive line getting mostly virtual work in this week while quarantined, Bowles may choose to bring a big mix of blitzes and unexpected four-man rush combinations against the Raiders as well. If so, White should be ready to be unleashed once again.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 28.9/27.5. The Raiders are still the Raiders. They still value speed over almost everything else and they like to go deep. Those two numbers are the average distance, in yards, of the routes run this year by Raiders wideouts Nelson Agholor and Henry Ruggs, respectively. Those averages rank first and third among all NFL players, according to Next Gen Stats. Ruggs, the 12th-overall pick in this year's draft, has only caught six passes so far but one was a 72-yard touchdown against the Chiefs and he owns a 29.5 yards-per-catch average.
· 15/6. Defensive Coordinator Todd Bowles used the blitz to great effect in Week Six, bringing extra rushers on 37.5% of the Packers' drop-backs, which helped hold MVP candidate Aaron Rodgers to 160 yards and a completion rate of 45.7%. The Buccaneers have blitzed effectively all season and have recorded 15 sacks and six interceptions on plays on which they sent extra rushers. Both are the highest totals in the league, according to Next Gen Stats.
· 52.3%/71.4%/40.0%/20/0%. The Las Vegas offense has rolled up nearly 400 yards per game this season, in part because they've been very good at extending drives. The Raiders rank third in the NFL with a robust 52.3% success rate on all third downs, trailing only the Bills and Chiefs. The key for Tampa Bay's defense, however, will be first and second down. If the Raiders can get to a third down in which they only need 2-6 yards, they are the best in the league at converting, succeeding 71.4% of the time. However, they are only 12th in the seven to 10-yard range (40.0%) and tied for 10th from 11 yards and farther (20.0%).
· 330. That's how many yards Ronald Jones has rushed for in his last three games, as he is the only player in the NFL so far this season to record three consecutive 100-yard rushing games. Bruce Arians and the Buccaneers want to field a balanced offense and, despite all of their weapons in the passing game, think they are most dangerous when the rushing attack is in high gear. Jones could become just the second player in franchise history to put up four straight 100-yard rushing efforts in a single season. James Wilder did it in the first four contests of 1985.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Raiders' entire starting offensive line is a question mark after the group spent most of the week away from the team following the placement of right tackle Trent Brown on the reserve/COVID-19 list. Even if the rest of the starting five are back in action on Sunday, Brown is not expected to play. He will likely be replaced by Sam Young, who has already played extensively this year as Brown had previously missed three games with a calf injury.
· The Buccaneers had half of their safety depth chart on the injury report this week. Reserve Andrew Adams, who has played extensively on special teams, did not practice on Thursday and only on a limited basis on Fridaydue to a hamstring injury and seems like the more pressing concern. Rookie starter Antoine Winfield, Jr. was limited during the week due to a shoulder injury. Adams is questionable for the game but Winfield did not get an injury designation.
· Las Vegas rookie wideout Bryan Edwards stepped right into the starting lineup at the beginning of the season and had five catches for 99 yards through the Raiders' first three games. However, he has missed the last two outings due to an ankle injury and did not practice this week. The Raiders ruled Edwards out on Friday. Nelson Agholor, Zay Jones and Henry Ruggs have all started in the last two weeks.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE RAIDERS
The Raiders are scoring more than 30 points per game with an offensive that has been both explosive and efficient. Las Vegas ranks in the top 10 in scoring, net yards, passing yards, interception rate, sacks per pass play, first downs per game, third-down percentage and time of possession. Derek Carr has spread the ball around impressively with 10 different Raiders already scoring a touchdown through five games. The Las Vegas defense hasn't matched the offense with any top-10 rankings but does have the personnel up front that should eventual lead to some strong pass-rush numbers. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Carr is thriving in his third season under Jon Gruden, producing career-high numbers in virtually every rate category, including completion percentage (73.1%) and passer rating (115.9). That completion rate leads all qualifying NFL passers while his passer rating is second only to that of Seattle's Russell Wilson. One specific way that Carr is thriving this year is on the deep ball, party due to a couple weapons the Raiders added over the offseason. Carr didn't throw deep often the previous two years (7% of his throws in both 2018 and 2019, both fourth-lowest in the NFL) and while that rate is only up to 8% in 2020 he is making the most of those throws. He has a 141.1 passer rating on deep passes according to Next Gen Stats, which is third-best in the NFL, and his 14 deep balls have resulted in eight completions and three touchdowns. The Bucs need to be most aware of this when speedy rookie Henry Ruggs is on the field; when Carr has Ruggs in the huddle with him his deep passing rate goes up to 13%.
The Raiders brought in a handful of new starters on defense via free agency and the 2020 draft, including defensive tackle Maliek Collins, linebackers Nick Kwiatkoski and Cory Littleton and cornerback Damon Arnette. (Arnette is currently on the reserve/COVID-19 list.) Littleton was perhaps the most noteworthy addition, as he came over from the Rams after developing from an undrafted free agent into a Pro Bowler. The best part of Littleton's game is his talent in coverage; he has been considered one of the NFL's best coverage linebackers the last three years. That shows up in his numbers, too, which include six interceptions and 26 passes defensed in that span. So far, Littleton doesn't have any picks or pass breakups as a Raider and he has not yet provided any particularly splashy plays. Still, Littleton could pose a problem for the Bucs' passing game over the middle of the field, particularly if they try to get the ball to tight end Rob Gronkowski as frequently as they did in last Sunday's win over Green Bay.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On if he feels like things are starting to come together for the Buccaneers:
"I don't think there's any doubt. We went through some injury situations and we're dealing with them. We've lost some really good players, but guys have stepped up. I love the intensity that we're having at practice the last two weeks and it's continued this week."