The 9-5 Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the 5-9 Detroit Lions on Saturday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. kickoff at Ford Field in Detroit. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
RB Leonard Fournette. Ronald Jones will miss a second straight game due to his placement on the reserve/COVID-19 list, which means Fournette should get another chance to show off his skills as the Bucs' lead back. The former Jaguar showed off the tough-running part of his arsenal in Atlanta, powering through the pile for two short touchdowns and gaining some tough yards at key moments on the way to 49 yards on 14 carries. The Bucs would like to see more of that, plus the explosive-play part of his game, which showed up early in the season on a 46-yard touchdown run against Carolina. The Bucs didn't try to hard to establish a ground game in Atlanta, throwing often on their first few drives and later being forced to score quickly after getting down by 17 points. Things could be different at Ford Field on Saturday because the Lions' defense has allowed 137.3 rushing yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry this season, as well as a whopping 24 rushing touchdowns. Detroit also has a number of defensive linemen sidelined by injuries and has recently turned to some practice squad players to fill in and take a large number of snaps. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's offensive line is in good health and could be in position this weekend to open up some wide rushing lanes for Fournette.
S Antoine Winfield Jr. The heady rookie made one of the most important plays of the game in Atlanta, catching up with a momentarily wide-open Calvin Ridley in the back corner of the end zone and diving to bat away what looked like a sure touchdown pass. That and a Devin White sack forced Atlanta to settle for a field goal and a three-point lead midway through the fourth quarter. In turn, Antonio Brown's touchdown catch on the next possession proved to be the game-winning score rather than merely a game-tying TD. Winfield has been making clutch plays for the Buccaneers all season as he continues to operate as if he's already been in the league five years. There's a good chance Tampa Bay's defense will be without top corner Carlton Davis on Saturday, and while cornerback Ross Cockrell will be the one getting the biggest bump in snaps, Head Coach Bruce Arians also mentioned that some versatile players in the secondary would allow the team to mix in some other defensive packages, too. That's probably most relevant to Winfield, who has already shown he can play all over the defense like a younger Tyrann Mathieu. Winfield could even give the Bucs' some snaps as a slot corner, as he did at times earlier in the year. Tampa Bay's defense has only generated one turnover in the last two games but coordinator Todd Bowles knows they come in bunches, and it could be Winfield that gets the ball rolling again in that category on Saturday.
WR Antonio Brown. Brown, who joined the Buccaneers in Week Nine, contributed 25 catches over his first five games with his new team, a good number of them chain-movers on third down. What Brown hadn't done through that five-game span was haul in any of the explosive downfield plays he was known for during his incredibly productive tenure in Pittsburgh. Last Sunday, Brown finally got one of those, and at a great time, as his 46-yard touchdown catch on a straight go route proved to be the game-winning points. Brown has settled in as the Bucs' primary third receiver, and given that the team already has Mike Evans and Chris Godwin to provide big plays, he doesn't necessarily need a bunch of 50-yard bombs to be very helpful to the cause on offense. Still, they don't hurt, and now that he and Tom Brady have finally clicked maybe that will open the floodgates and Brown will turn in some more big plays during these crucial final two weeks of the regular season. This week he'll be facing a Lions defense that is down its top two cornerbacks and is 27th in the league in passing yards allowed per game and 31st in yards allowed per pass play.
DL Ndamukong Suh. This is not the first time that Suh has gone back to Detroit, his original NFL home, to play the Lions. He and the Buccaneers were there just last December and Suh contributed three tackles, a sack and two quarterback hits to the cause in a 38-16 win for the visitors. In fact, this is the third straight year that Suh has gone back to Motown for a game, as his 2018 Los Angeles Rams also won in Detroit, 30-16, helped by his six tackles and two quarterback hits. The Lions made Suh the second-overall pick, and first non-quarterback, in the 2010 draft and he went on to play five seasons and make four Pro Bowls with Detroit. Suh has 5.0 more sacks this year to give him 63.5 in his career, and he also has 16 quarterback hits, including four in the Bucs' last three games. Only Suh knows if playing against the Lions, especially in Detroit, offers him added motivation, but it certainly wouldn't be a surprise. The Lions may be without their Pro Bowl center Frank Ragnow, due to a throat injury, and the Lions left guard is a rookie, albeit one who has had a pretty strong debut campaign in Jonah Jackson. Tampa Bay's three leading sack producers are their two outside linebackers (Jason Pierre-Paul and Shaq Barrett) and blitzing inside linebacker Devin White, but it could be the men in the middle who provide the pressure this Sunday, with Suh leading the way.
G Ali Marpet. As noted above, the Buccaneers could try to establish the running game early in Detroit, much as they did in Week 10 at Carolina when facing what appeared to be a vulnerable run defense. Last week, the Bucs ran Fournette mostly up the middle and both of his touchdowns went directly over left guard, where Marpet was able to push the defense back enough for the back to power in. Arians has said that Marpet was playing at a Pro Bowl level prior to missing three games due to a concussion and that the sixth-year blocker is back in that same groove since returning to action three games ago. Marpet didn't get that Pro Bowl recognition this year and is still waiting for his first invite to the all-star game, which seems overdue. The Buccaneers would clinch a playoff spot with a win in Detroit, and that would guarantee Marpet and his teammates at least one game in the national postseason spotlight, which may help with that whole Pro Bowl thing down the road. In the meantime, the Buccaneers still have some business to take care of and they would have an easier time of doing so if they could return to their early-season trend of fast starts. In Detroit this weekend that could mean getting that ground game in gear early and producing short third downs and better bite to play-action passes. Marpet's work will be at the center of revving up that ground game.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
- 127/85, 61/122. These numbers help illustrate what has definitely become the most worrisome storyline of the Bucs' last two months: Slow starts to games, some of which have been overcome and some of which have not. Through the first seven games of the season, the Buccaneers outscored their opponents in the first half by 42 points, 127 to 85. However, that has more than flipped over the last seven games, in which the Bucs have been outscored in the first half by an exact two-to-one margin, 122-61. Tampa Bay wants to get past this issue before it gets to the postseason, where a slow start could mean a quick exit.
- 67.3/298.3/6-2/99.1. All of those are passing numbers put up by Detroit's Matthew Stafford over the Lions' last four games. Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians argued this week that Stafford remains one of the league's best quarterbacks, and he is certainly playing well down the stretch, even with the Lions eliminated from the playoff and injuries to his own ribs and right thumb. Stafford has completed 67.3% of his passes in that stretch, has averaged just under 300 yards per passing game and has a 6-2 TD-INT ratio, all of it adding up to a 99.1 passer rating.
- 37/19. Stafford and Bucs QB Tom Brady have similar passer ratings on the season, 97.5 for Brady and 95.3 for Stafford, and their yardage totals are separated by less than 100 yards. There's one big difference in the 2020 experience for those two passers, however. While Stafford has been sacked 37 times, Brady has only gone down 19 times. Coincidentally, 19 is also the number of sacks that Detroit's defense has on the season. Detroit quarterbacks have been hit 85 times on the season, most of that on Stafford. The Bucs, who have 99 QB hits as a defense this year, have a chance to gain a significant edge over Detroit in terms of the pass rush.
- 69.8%/73.2%, 82.5%/90.6%. If 2020 trends hold on Saturday, the Buccaneers could also have a big advantage when their offense gets inside Detroit's 20-yard line. Tampa Bay ranks sixth in the league with a 69.8% touchdown rate in the red zone, while the Lions' defense is next to last with a TD rate of 73.2% allowed. That second set of numbers above refers to touchdown efficiency in goal-to-go situations. The Buccaneers are fifth in the league in that category while Detroit's defense is dead last.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· The Buccaneers will not have starting running back Ronald Jones back in Week 16 as he has still yet to clear the protocol to come off the reserve/COVID-19 list. Leonard Fournette, who scored two touchdowns in his start in place of Jones last Sunday in Atlanta, is likely to open the game again and get the bulk of the carries.
· Tyrell Crosby started 11 of the Lions' first 12 games at right tackle but has missed the last two with an ankle injury and is still not ready to return against the Buccaneers this weekend. Halapoulivaati Vaitai returned from injured reserve last week to make his second start of the season at right tackle (along with six at right guard) but he is also questionable for Saturday's game due to a concussion. Matt Nelson started at right tackle in Week 14. The Lions have several other question marks along their offensive line this week, as starting center Frank Ragnow is questionable with a throat injury that sidelined him last week and starting left tackle Taylor Decker is questionable with a groin injury.
· Buccaneers cornerback Carlton Davis is considered doubtful to play on Saturday, in which case the Buccaneers would primarily use a trio of Jamel Dean, Sean Murphy-Bunting and Ross Cockrell at the cornerback spots. Arians said Cockrell has been one of the team's most pleasant surprises this year. Arians also pointed out that Tampa Bay's secondary has several very versatile players, such as safety Antoine Winfield, Jr., so there are other personnel packages the Bucs could use with Davis out, as well.
View historical photos from previous Detroit Lions vs. Tampa Bay Buccaneers matchups.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE LIONS
The Lions are facing a lot of late-season adversity with a rash of injuries followed by a COVID issue that is forcing the team to juggle its coaching staff for Saturday's game. However, Detroit has a strong leader to keep them at their best through this adversity in quarterback Matthew Stafford, who showed his own toughness last week playing through a painful ribs injury. As noted above, Stafford is having yet another strong season and he has some very good offensive weapons in wide receiver Marvin Jones, tight end T.J. Hockenson and rookie running back D'Andre Swift. The Lions' defense has struggled, allowing the most points in the league, and has had to deal with a number of injuries but it has a rising edge rusher in Romeo Okwara, who is also getting his brother and fellow defensive end Julian Okwara back from injured reserve this week. Detroit also expects to have veteran end Everson Griffen back from the COVID list on Saturday and Griffen had a sack in each of his last two games played. Here is a specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
Hockenson is going to the Pro Bowl in just his second season, as he left his injury problems from his rookie season behind and has shown what he can do with more playing time. The former Iowa star leads all NFC tight ends with 675 yards on 60 catches and he's second on the team with six touchdown catches. Because he's so big and such a good blocker, the Lions can leave him on the field in just about any situation, and indeed he's played three-quarters of the team's offensive snaps this year. When the Lions do send him out on a route he becomes an immediate size mismatch for every safety in the league and a speed mismatch for a lot of linebackers. Stafford targets Hockenson frequently. Though the second-year tight end only had four targets and two catches last week against Tennessee, he had 35 passes thrown his way over the previous four games, resulting in 288 yards and a touchdown.
Linebacker Jamie Collins has just one tackle and three QB hits this season in his first year as a Lion but the Buccaneers still should be aware of the possibility that he will try to invade the backfield. Like the Bucs' Devin White, Collins is a good blitzer up the middle, which helped him get 7.0 sacks and 10 QB hits with the Patriots last year and four sacks with Cleveland in 2018. Collins is on the Lions' injury report with a neck ailment and is questionable for the game but he hasn't missed a game yet and is the Lions leading tackler with 101 stops. Though the Lions have not moved Collins around the defensive formation as much as New England did in 2019 he remains a versatile defender who can hold up in coverage and is stout against the run.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS AT THE END OF THE WEEK
On how well he thinks the Buccaneers could play if they put it all together for 60 minutes:
"That gets me really excited. The middle part of the Minnesota game got me extremely excited when we finished the half and came back and got 17 points there in the matter of six or seven minutes. And then what we did in the second half [against Atlanta] – this team keeps me excited every day. I love coaching this football team. It's a great group of guys."