The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will try to complete a two-game sweep of Ohio on Sunday, following up an overtime win over Cleveland at home with a trip to Cincinnati in Week Eight. The Buccaneers are also trying to get back over .500 on the season after evening their record at 3-3 with last week's victory. The Bengals won four of their first five games but have dropped the last two, albeit to a pair of high-powered offenses in Pittsburgh and Kansas City. That run continues for the Bengals as the Bucs bring the NFL's top-ranked offense to town.
Cincinnati's games have been largely high-scoring affairs, as the Bengals are averaging 26.3 points per game but allowing 29.0 points per outing. In a league that sees a high percentage of its games come down to the wire, the Bengals have bucked that trend with three wins by double-digit margins and two losses in the same category. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges the Buccaneers will face against Cincinnati on Sunday:
Each week during the season, Head Coach Dirk Koetter puts together a specific video package to show to his players called "Game-Wreckers." The clips are meant to identify the three or four players on the opposing team who are likely to make the big plays that most affect the game's outcome. The Buccaneers know they have to limit the damage inflicted by these game-wreckers if they are going to come out on top.
Koetter's cut-up is an internal tool for his team and it is not shared publicly, though he does occasionally note an opposing game-wrecker or two during media sessions. Below are four players who might be on this week's tape.
1. WR A.J. Green. The fourth-overall pick in the 2011 draft has lived up to that lofty draft status and is one of the most consistently productive players in the NFL. Green has averaged 81.0 receiving yards per game in his career and has finished each of his seasons with a Pro Bowl berth. Injuries cost him six games in 2016 and he fell just short of 1,000 yards that season (964), but he's well on pace in 2018 to eclipse that mark for the seventh time in his eight seasons. Green is simply the complete package as an NFL receiver: big, fast, strong, quick, agile and possessed of absolutely sensational hands.
2. DT Geno Atkins. Atkins is a two-time Associated Press All-Pro and a six-time Pro Bowler, and perhaps still a bit underrated. Every team in the NFL would sell the farm for an interior linemen who can consistently get pressure on the quarterback, and that's exactly what Atkins has bene since he entered the league as a fourth-round draft pick in 2010. His first Pro Bowl came in his second season, in which he had 7.5 sacks, and he's since had at least sacks in every campaign except one, including this year in just seven games. Like the Bucs' own Gerald McCoy, Atkins has an exceptionally quick get-off for such a big man.
3. RB Joe Mixon. The Bengals' rushing attack hasn't produced at a high level yet, but Mixon hasn't been the problem. The former Oklahoma back has taken a big step forward in his second NFL season, going from a 3.5-yard per-carry average as a rookie to a 4.6-yard average this year. He has also been a reliable option in the passing game, with 16 receptions for 100 yards and a touchdown. Mixon missed two games after having a minor knee procedure but has played well since his return three weeks ago. The 6-1, 220-pound back is a good mix of speed and power.
4. DE Carlos Dunlap. While Atkins has provided push up the middle, Dunlap has complemented that with a threat of the edge, with five sacks to rank just behind his Pro Bowl teammate. Like Atkins, Dunlap has been a very consistent producer, recording at least 7.5 sacks in each of the previous five seasons. The Bengals are moving Dunlap around a little bit more this year, giving him some work on the right side, though he still lines up on the left most often. In addition to his five sacks he also has 10 quarterback hits and two forced fumbles. Dunlap is also good at getting his hands up, as he has logged five passes defensed already.
Cincinnati's offense ranks 25th in the NFL in yards produced but 11th in points scored, and one reason for that discrepancy is that the Bengals have done very well with their scoring opportunities. The Bengals rank second in the NFL in red zone efficiency, having converted 72.7 of their chances into touchdowns. As noted above, the Bengals' defensive line features a premium inside-outside pass-rushing duo in Atkins and Dunlap, who have accounted for 11 of the team's 15 sacks. Here are some other areas in which the Browns have excelled so far this season:
· Andy Dalton has done a good job of leading the Bengals on two-minute drills. Cincinnati has scored an NFL-high 41 points at the end of both halves combined, and they've split that almost right down the middle. The Bengals have scored 21 points in the last two minutes of the first half, best in the league, and 20 in the last two minutes of the fourth quarter, third-best in the league.
· Kicker Randy Bullock is having a good season. He has made eight of 10 field goals, with one miss from beyond 50 yards, and all 22 of his extra point tries. The Bengals have also covered his kickoffs well; though Cincinnati ranks 26th in touchback percentage, they are ninth in average opponent kickoff drive start. Opponents start at an average of the 26.9-yard line after Cincinnati kickoffs.
· Though Dalton has thrown eight interceptions, the Bengals pass-catchers and ballcarriers have not put the football on the ground often. Cincinnati has fumbled just five times this year and has lost only one of those fumbles.
· The Bengals' secondary has generally defended the deep ball well. On passes that travel more than 20 yards in the air, Cincinnati's defense has allowed an overall passer rating of 66.1. That's the sixth-best mark in the NFL; the league average is 91.1.
Cincinnati's defense has struggled in a variety of categories, including yards allowed per game (31st), yards allowed per play (27th) and points allowed per game (28th). The offense has struggled to run the ball, ranking 28th in the league with 86.3 yards per game, which likely plays into a healthy time-of-possession imbalance. In addition:
· The Bengals' defense has allowed opponents to convert 56.0% of their third downs, which is the worst mark in the league. As such, Cincinnati has forced the fewest three-and-out drives in the NFL, with just eight, which is a league-low 10.7% of all drives faced. The league averages are 15 three-and-out drives and 20.0% of all possessions.
· While Cincinnati may be defending the deep ball well, as noted, they are still giving up too many "chunk" plays. The Bengals have allowed 114 plays of 10 or more yards, which is the fourth-highest total in the NFL.
· The Bengals' turnover differential is exactly even, but they haven't created many scoring opportunities via the takeaway. Cincinnati's nine takeaways are tied for 17th in the league, and those turnovers have produced just 13 points all season, which is the seventh-lowest total in the NFL.
· Punter Kevin Huber's 37.5-yard net average has the Bengals ranked 27th in the NFL in that category, and that's in part because Huber has had one punt blocked this season.
NEW FACES IN 2018
Obviously, the Browns have a new signal-caller, one they hope will slow down the incredible turnover at the quarterback position over the past two decades. Cleveland's offense also has a new leading receiver, while the defense has not only found a potential star in the secondary in the draft but has added an impact safety via trade.
1. T Bobby Hart. Last season, the Bengals split their right tackle job between Jake Fisher and Andre Smith, the latter of whom is no longer with the team. This year, that position is being manned by Hart, a fourth-year player who was released by the Giants in February and immediately snapped up by the Bengals. Hart is part of a line that has given Andy Dalton good protection; the Bengals rank 10th in sacks allowed per pass attempt, at 5.34%.
2. S Jessie Bates. The Bengals used their second round pick in this year's draft on this safety out of Wake Forest, and he has stepped right into the starting lineup and made a big impact. Bates is the Bengals' leading tackler, with 54 stops, and he has also picked off two passes to tie fellow safety Shawn Williams for the team lead.
3. LB Preston Brown. A third-round pick by the Bills in 2014, Brown started all but two games in his four years in Buffalo, then signed with Cincinnati this past spring as an unrestricted free agent. He is the middle linebacker in Cincinnati's 4-3 front, and though he's missed two games he has contributed 26 tackles, an interception and two passes defensed.
1. TE Tyler Eifert. Cincinnati's Pro Bowl-caliber tight end has had very bad luck with injuries, the latest being a broken ankle suffered in Week Four. He is now on injured reserve and his main replacement, Tyler Kroft, has missed the last two games as well. A third tight end, rookie Mason Schreck, just landed on injured reserve.
2. RB Giovani Bernard. A good complement to lead back Joe Mixon, Bernard is currently sidelined by a knee injury.
3. CB Darqueze Dennard. Dennard, the Bengals' very effective nickel back, missed last week's game against the Chiefs due to a shoulder injury, which could also keep him out in Week Eight.