The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants will meet for the third straight season, with Sunday's rubber game following a split by a combined score of 61-60. This one has a twist, however.
Eli Manning handled the quarterback duties for New York in both of those games, a 25-23 Bucs win in 2017 and a 38-35 Giants victory last year. That won't be the case on Sunday at Raymond James Stadium, as it appears as if a 15-year era is coming to an end. The Giants named rookie Daniel Jones their starter on Tuesday.
The sixth-overall pick in the 2019 NFL Draft, Jones had an impressive preseason, completing 29 of his 34 passes for 416 yards, two touchdowns, no interceptions and a 137.2 passer rating. That performance surely helped the Giants pull the trigger on this franchise-altering move, though it's often a fool's errand to predict how a rookie passer will fare in his first real regular-season action.
Todd Bowles and the Buccaneers' new-look defense will surely try to make it hard on Jones. Tampa Bay ranks eighth in yards allowed through two weeks and has only allowed one offensive touchdown. That's the product of great work on third downs (29.6% conversion rate allowed) and in the red zone (zero touchdowns allowed in six trips). The quickest way to make Jones uncomfortable would be to take away – or at least limit – his security blanket, star tailback Saquon Barkley.
"We’ve got a heck of an opponent this week," said Buccaneers Head Coach Bruce Arians. "Changing quarterbacks doesn’t really change their offense [but] it does change some things. For us, we’ve got to stop number 26 [Barkley]. It all starts and ends with him, then we’ll try to contain the quarterback because he’s a heck of a lot more mobile than the other guy."
After losing their season opener to San Francisco at home, the Buccaneers got the quick rebound they critically needed with a Thursday night intra-division victory over the Rams. That puts Tampa Bay in a three-way tie for first place in the NFC South, a division that could be shaken up by the injuries to Drew Brees and Cam Newton. After Sunday's game the Buccaneers will embark on an unusual stretch in which they won't play another game in their home stadium until November 10; thus, getting to 2-1 before that run seems important. The Giants are turning to Jones because they've started out 0-2; they're looking for a quick turnaround of their own, but they're also looking to the future.
Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Buccaneers will run into on Sunday when the Giants visit:
The Giants complemented their second-overall selection of Barkley by rebuilding an offensive line that had been a trouble spot for several years. This offseason they did a similar makeover in the defensive secondary through both free agency and the draft. Here are four Giants in particular, including Barkley, who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. RB Saquon Barkley. Barkley simply has it all. He's got 4.40 speed and incredible power in his leagues, and he can also start and stop on a dime. Barkley's vision as he approaches the line of scrimmage is extraordinary; if the defense has any breakdown in its gap integrity, he's going to find it immediately. He's also a natural pass-catcher, making him the type of back the Giants rarely need to take off the field. Barkley is without a doubt a game-changer, a rare player who can alter the course of the contest in the blink of an eye, as evidenced by the fact that in just 18 career games he already has nine plays of 50 or more yards.
2. CB Janoris Jenkins. Eight years into his NFL career, Jenkins remains a physically-gifted cornerback, fast and twitchy and will excellent ball skills. He had 18 interceptions through his first seven seasons and, remarkably turned seven of those into touchdowns, which means he's an extra threat after he gets the ball in his hands. Jenkins also has 91 career passes defensed, including one this year, and six forced fumbles.
3. TE Evan Engram. Engram is one of the fastest and most athletic tight ends in the NFL and he's been a productive pass-catcher since the day he first took the field for the Giants. In 28 career games he has already racked up 126 catches and scored 10 touchdowns. Engram may not be a top-level blocker, but he is explosive off the line and a very good runner after he has the ball in his hands. Though his per-catch average so far this year is down to 9.6, he is still a threat to make big plays up the seam. Engram leads the Giants with 22 targets, 17 receptions and 164 yards.
4. DL B.J. Hill. A third-round pick in 2018, Hill has quickly turned into a mainstay in the Giants' 3-4 defensive front. Hill is big (6-3, 311) and good at holding up against the run, part of the reason why New York's per-carry run defense has been good so far this year. He also had 5.5 sacks this year and potentially has even more upside as a pass-rusher.
The Giants can move the ball, especially on the ground. Thanks to the work of the aforementioned (and sure to be mentioned again) Saquon Barkley, they lead the NFL with an average of 7.57 yards per carry. Overall, the Giants are racking up 420 yards per game and have recorded 46 first downs through the first two weeks, tied for sixth-best in the NFL. The Giants have struggled a bit more on defense, but they are holding opponents to 3.75 yards per carry. Here are some more specific areas in which the Giants are off to a good start in 2019:
· At the risk of being repetitive, we point again to Barkley, whose hot start has made New York's offense the best in the league at first-down efficiency, which is measured in the percentage of first-down plays that gain at least four yards. The Giants have done so on 61.3% of their attempts; the league average is 49.1%.
· The Giants have reached goal-to-go situations on offense three times so far through their first two games, and they've turned all three into touchdowns. That is not all the work of Barkley, as two of those three touchdowns have been of the passing variety. New York is one of 11 teams that remains perfect in goal-to-go situations, and one of only five that has done so on three or more attempts.
· There's been a bit of a feast-or-famine bent to the Giants' defensive efforts so far. Though they have surrendered 31.5 points per game, they've also forced three-and-outs on seven of their opponents' 22 possessions. That three-and-out rate of 31.8% ranks third in the NFL and is substantially better than the league average of 20.3%.
· The Giants' kickoff team has done well, mostly because Aldrick Rosas is not giving opponents a chance to run anything back. Through two games he has blasted seven kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, and the one time he squibbed one it was downed at the 16. Thus, opponents have an average kickoff drive start of the 23.7-yard line.
The Giants have turned their 840 yards of offense into just 31 points, which is tied for the sixth-lowest total in the NFL. A rough go of it on third down (21.7%) hasn't helped. On defense, the Giants are giving up 441 yards per game and 6.84 yards per play to rank 28th and 30th, respectively, in those categories. In addition:
· New York's secondary has had trouble when their first two opponents, Dallas and Buffalo, have chosen to air it out. Opposing passers have thrown eight passes that went more than 20 yards downfield in the air, and six of them have been completed for a total of 206 yards (34.3 per completion) and three touchdowns. That all adds up to a league-worst 156.3 passer rating allowed on such throws.
· This one is simple: New York is second-to-last in turnover differential at -4, beating only the overmatched Dolphins (-6). The Giants' offense has coughed it up four times – two lost fumbles and two interceptions – and the defense has yet to record a takeaway.
· On offense, successful plays are defined as first-down snaps that get at least four yards, second-down snaps that get at least half of the remaining distance needed for a first down, and third-down snaps that result in first downs. New York's defense has faced 16 plays in their own red zone and has allowed 13 to be successful. That's the second-worst rate in the league, 81.3%.
· The Giants have faced a rash of injuries at the wide receiver position (more on that below). As such, TE Evan Engram is the team's leading pass-catcher by a good margin. New York's wideouts have accounted for 56.2% of the team's overall receiving yards, which is the sixth-lowest percentage in the NFL.
NEW FACES IN 2019
The Giants used a trio of first-round picks to add two key pieces on defense and also grab what may be their quarterback of the future in Daniel Jones. They also have made notable veteran additions on defense, including a brand new pair of starting safeties.
1. DT Dexter Lawrence and CB DeAndre Baker. These are the Giants' first-rounders, non-quarterback division. Both stepped immediately into starting roles, though Head Coach Pat Shurmur said Lawrence might be in line for more playing time while Baker might see his snaps reduced somewhat, both in response to the Giants' defensive struggles through two weeks.
2. S Jabrill Peppers and S Antoine Bethea. The Giants two starting safeties from last year both walked in free agency, most notably three-time Pro Bowler Landon Collins, who went to division-rival Washington. They were replaced by Peppers, the former Browns first-rounder who came over in the Odell Beckham trade, and Antoine Bethea, who was let loose by Arizona after his 14th season.
3. OLB Markus Golden. A former Bruce Arians draft pick in Arizona, Golden had a breakout sophomore campaign with 12.5 sacks in 2016 but has battled injuries since. He signed with the Giants as an unrestricted free agent and in last Sunday's game split a pair of sacks of Buffalo's Josh Allen.
1. WRs Golden Tate, Corey Coleman, Sterling Shepard and Darius Slayton. Tate definitely won't play, as he is serving a four-game suspension to open the season. Neither will Coleman, who went down with an ACL tear on the first day of training camp. Shepard and Slayton both missed New York's Week Two game, due to a concussion and a hamstring injury, respectively.
2. OLB Kareem Martin. Martin, who started 17 games and played in all 32 over the Giants' previous two seasons, suffered a knee injury in the team's opener against Dallas and was placed on injured reserve before Game Two.
3. CB Sam Beal. The Giants liked Beal enough to give up a third-round pick in the supplemental draft in the summer of 2018, but they haven't been able to get him on the field yet. Beal missed his whole rookie season due to a shoulder injury and now he's back on IR with a hamstring issue. He could return around midseason, but he won't play against the Buccaneers.