Tampa Bay Buccaneers

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Countdown to Kickoff: Bucs-Colts

The Bucs' offense is better equipped to work the middle of the field Sunday with Rob Gronkowski back, but it will also be facing the best team in the league at forcing turnovers...Players to watch, strengths and weaknesses, key stats and more


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the Indianapolis Colts in Week 12 on Sunday, and we're counting down the hours to the 1:00 p.m. ET kickoff at Lucas Oil Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:


Sean Murphy-Bunting. Murphy-Bunting's return to action on Monday night appeared to make a significant difference in a Buccaneers secondary that has had to navigate around a long list of injuries this season. Head Coach Bruce Arians had suggested that the third-year corner might be on something of a pitch count in his first game back from a dislocated elbow, but he ended up playing all but one defensive snap and later said he never felt winded. Murphy-Bunting ended up with seven tackles and a forced fumble and, most importantly the Giants only passed for 149 net yards, with no single pass-catcher getting more than 40 yards. The performance left him feeling very confident heading into Week 12, and the Buccaneers saw what a confident Murphy-Bunting is capable of in last year's playoffs, when he set a franchise record with an interception in three straight games. The Colts' passing attack features ascending second-year player Michael Pittman, Jr. and a healthier T.Y. Hilton. If the Buccaneers' top-ranked run defense can keep the NFL's leading rusher, Jonathan Taylor, in check early and force Carson Wentz to try to get the offense moving with his arm, Murphy-Bunting could play a key role in the final outcome.

Chris Godwin. Mike Evans has been in the spotlight as he's successfully hunted down the team's all-time touchdown record, and the triumphant return of Rob Gronkowski to the offense was the big story in Week 11. Quietly, though, it is Godwin who leads the team in receptions (63), receiving yards (782) and yards from scrimmage (791), and he's second to Evans with six scores of his own. As opposing teams have increasingly tried to slow the Bucs' offense down with Cover Two looks, trying to put a lid on the passing game, it is Godwin who has been the team's most effective player on quick-hitting passes, screens and end-arounds, particularly in the continued absence of Antonio Brown. Godwin simply does it all in the Bucs' offense, including a large and designed role in the team's run-blocking scheme. He is frequently in motion before the snap, and that often leads to good things. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Godwin has led the NFL since the start of 2020 with six touchdowns on plays that started with him in motion, and he's second with 456 yards on such snaps. He is also the only player who has at least 150 receiving yards on nine different types of routes since 2019 – out, post, screen, hitch, cross, go, slant, in and corner.

Lavonte David. The Bucs' first goal on Sunday will be to slow down Taylor, and two of their most important run-stoppers – defensive lineman Vita Vea and inside linebacker Devin White – may be at less than 100 percent due to injuries. That just enhances the importance of David, who continues to play at a Pro Bowl level in his 10th NFL season. David doesn't invade the backfield as often as White but he's effective when he does, with a 14.9% pressure rate on his pass rushes. He has also long been one of the league's best coverage linebackers, which will be important on Sunday as the Colts have targeted Jonathan Taylor 38 times this season, or about 3.5 times per game and have also gotten 35 catches and six touchdowns out of tight ends Jack Doyle and Mo-Alie Cox. A team captain, Davis is also the leader of the defense on the field and it will be important for him to help control communication among the defenders in a very loud Lucas Oil Stadium atmosphere.

Rob Gronkowski. There was a big difference between the check-down heavy offense the Bucs slipped into at Washington in Week 10 and the designed underneath attack that worked so well against the Giants in Week 11, and Gronkowski was that difference, or at least a major part of that. In his first action since Week Three, other than six ill-fated snaps in New Orleans in Week Eight, Gronkowski caught six passes for 71 yards and turned in the game's longest play with a 35-yard grab on a second-quarter touchdown drive. Gronkowski wasted no time getting back into the middle of the team's passing attack, with five of his six receptions coming before halftime. According to ESPN, the Buccaneers' offense averaged 6.2 yards per play with Gronkowski on the field and 4.0 with him off the field on Monday night. Prior to suffering fractured ribs in Los Angeles in Week Three, which later led to a back ailment, Gronkowski had scored two touchdowns in each of the Bucs' first two games of the season. His return to action gives the offense another very dangerous red zone weapon, and his obvious and well-developed connection with Tom Brady make him a leading concern for opposing defenses. Gronkowski is also the Bucs' best run-blocking tight end, so the team has a better chance of fielding a balanced attack with him in the lineup.

Ndamukong Suh. This is yet another nod to the threat that Jonathan Taylor poses. Since the arrival of Suh in Tampa in 2019, the Buccaneers' defense has been far and away the best in the league at stopping the run, and this year it is once again ranked first in that category with 78.4 yards allowed per game. Suh may have to shoulder more of the load on the interior line if Vita Vea is limited by his knee injury, and he'll be going up against some very tough blockers in the likes of center Ryan Kelly and left guard Quenton Nelson, assuming the latter is cleared to play. Taylor is a threat to pound the ball up the middle or get around the edge, but the Buccaneers are well-equipped to stop that former approach thanks in large part to Suh's stout play in the trenches. Tampa By is allowing just 2.6 yards per carry on runs between the tackles this season, according to Next Gen Stats. Suh is also third on the team with eight quarterback hits this season, so if the Buccaneers can slow Taylor down he will be an important part of the attempt to pressure Carson Wentz into some errant throws.


·    7.5/4.8. As noted above, the Buccaneers' defense is well-equipped to slow down Jonathan Taylor on runs between the tackles. However, the bigger challenge for Tampa Bay will be keeping Taylor from getting around the edge. This season, Taylor is averaging 7.5 yards on carries that go outside the tackles, according to Next Gen Stats, which is not only the best average in that category in the NFL this season but also the highest that NGS has seen from any player since it began tracking in 2016. Meanwhile, while the Buccaneers do have the league's top run defense, they are giving up 4.8 yards per carry on runs that go outside the tackles.

·    7-3/322.8/30/104.3. Should Tom Brady be one of the favorites to win the NFL MVP award in 2021 if he continues to perform as he has through the season's first 10 games? His numbers compare favorable to where the last two MVPs, both quarterbacks, were at this point in the season. Brady's team is 7-3 and he is throwing for 322.8 yards per game while amassing 30 total touchdowns (29 passing, 1 rushing) and building a passer rating of 103. 2020 MVP Aaron Rodgers was 7-3 with 296.7 yards per game, 30 touchdowns and a 115.8 rating. 2019 MVP Lamar Jackson was 7-3 with 303.9 yards per game, 25 touchdowns and a 106.3 rating.

·    55%. If it seems to you that opposing defenses have been leaving two safeties deep on the majority of snaps against Brady and the Bucs' offense, there's a reason for that. Tampa Bay's offense has faced a two-high safety shell on 55% of their offensive snaps this season. That's the second-highest percentage of two-deep-safety looks faced by any offense in the NFL this season.

·    +15/98/31.7%/35. The Colts have definitely made turnovers a winning edge for them in 2021. Indianapolis leads the NFL with a plus-15 turnover ratio, and no other team is even better than plus-10. The Colts 98 points scored off their 25 takeaways are also best in the league, with no other team even reaching 80 points scored off turnovers. A whopping 31.7% of their total points have come as the result of takeaways…again, that's the top mark in the NFL. And only one team has scored more points off turnovers at home than the Colts' 35. That team is Tampa Bay, with 57.


·    Ali Marpet is considered doubtful to play against the Colts, which could mean the first lineup change on the Buccaneers' offensive line all season. Marpet suffered an oblique injury on Monday night against the Giants and did not practice leading up to Sunday's game. Bruce Arians called Marpet's availability in Week 11 "a game time decision." If Marpet can't suit up against the Colts, Aaron Stinnie would step in at left guard, as he did on Monday night after Marpet suffered his injury. Stinnie started the last three games of the Bucs' playoff run last year and performed very well. However, this would be his first career regular-season start.

·    The Colts' own standout left guard, Quenton Nelson didn't practice on Wednesday and Thursday but returned to full participation on Friday and was then designated as questionable on Indy's injury report. Nelson missed three games earlier this season with an ankle injury, which he aggravated in last Sunday's game. Former Panther Chris Reed stepped into the starting lineup in those three games and would presumably do so again if Nelson can't play this Sunday.

·    Wide receiver Scotty Miller was activated from injured reserve on Tuesday and could play for the first time since suffering a turf toe injury in Week Three. With Antonio Brown once again ruled out, the Buccaneers have five active and healthy receivers available for Sunday's game: Miller, Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Tyler Johnson and Jaelon Darden. The Buccaneers usually keep five receivers active on game days, and practice squad wideout Breshad Perriman, who was that fifth receiver the past two outings, is out of standard elevation options.


The Colts have an elite offensive line anchored by guard Quenton Nelson and center Ryan Kelly, and it shows in their very high rankings in rushing yards and sacks allowed. Second-year wide receiver Michael Pittman is a physical force downfield and has fully taken over as Indy's new number-one target, though long-time Colt T.Y. Hilton is still capable of making big plays when healthy. The Colts' defense has been the best in the NFL in taking the ball away this season and they have 14 different players with either an interception or a fumble recovery (or both, in some cases). Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.

Obviously, Jonathan Taylor is the biggest problem for Tampa Bay's defense, although the Buccaneers have shown repeatedly over the last three seasons that they can handle the NFL's elite backs. Still, Taylor is a huge challenge because he's powerful enough to routinely break tackles and fast enough to go the distance if he gets to the second level. Taylor has 794 rushing yards after contact this season, second only to Derrick Henry, and he's averaging 4.1 yards per carry after contact, fourth-best among all players with at least 50 totes. In addition, he has reached the two fastest top speeds by any running back in the NFL this season, most recently getting up to 22.05 miles per hour on a 78-yard jaunt against the Jets in Week Nine. With that kind of tackle-breaking prowess and the ability to pull away from a defender, Taylor will force the Buccaneers to get as many would-be tacklers to the ball as possible every time he gets a handoff or a short pass.

Ball security will be a key concern for Tampa Bay's offense on Sunday. In addition to their 13 interceptions, the Colts have forced 18 fumbles and recovered a league-high 12 of them. Pro Bowl linebacker Darius Leonard is the leader of this dislodged-ball parade, already having forced four fumbles and recovered three of them through 11 games. He is tied for second in the NFL in the former category and leads all players with his three recoveries. This is not a fluke. Like the Bucs' Lavonte David, Leonard has shown a consistent knack for causing and recovering fumbles since he entered the league as a second-round draft pick in 2018. He now has 13 career forced fumbles, which is fourth most in the NFL over the past four years. The only three players above him on that list – T.J. Watt, Chandler Jones and Khalil Mack – are all edge rushers who get the majority of their turnovers on strip sacks. The Buccaneers have only lost five fumbles through their first 10 games of 2021.


On Colts RB Jonathan Taylor, the NFL's leading rusher, also posing a threat in the passing game:

"Big, big – he is great in the screen game, but he can go out and run routes. He had a lot of David Johnson in him when we worked him out. He could be a wide receiver if he wanted to be – he's got the size and speed. [He is a] tremendous athlete. He is dangerous anywhere in space."

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