At a time when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' defense is starting to show signs of a turnaround, that group is also on the verge of getting some important players back in the lineup.
The Buccaneers are coming off a win over the San Francisco 49ers in which they allowed a season-low nine points, had four sacks and nine hits on quarterback Nick Mullens and surrendered just one third-down conversion in eight attempts. Tampa Bay's defense has held three straight opponents under 200 net passing yards and in those games has allowed an average of 329.0 total net yards and 19.0 first downs per contest. Through the first eight games the Bucs had allowed 414.3 yards and 23.3 first downs per outing and had only held one opponent below 200 net passing yards.
The impetus for that improvement has been the defensive line, which has slowly returned to close to full health and has dialed up the pressure in recent weeks.
"I think our defensive line really overall played a darn good game the other day," said Defensive Coordinator Mark Duffner. "I think [that] was one of the reason why we were able to play productive defense. They’ve been working real hard on the pressure and putting pressure on the quarterback and impact him in terms of the pocket. I’m pleased that they’re having results that are reflective of their efforts."
With the D-Line hitting its stride, then, it's good news for the Buccaneers that the next two levels of defense may be getting some reinforcements soon. On Wednesday, linebacker Lavonte David and safety Justin Evans returned to practice after missing the last two games with knee and toe injuries, respectively.
"It was great having [David] back out there today," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "Lavonte’s one of the most respected payers on our team – a team captain. Any time – we got Lavonte back today, we got Justin Evans back somewhat today. That’s a big boost to everyone’s moral out there."
David and Evans are still the Buccaneers' two leading tacklers, with 71 and 54 stops, respectively, despite missing the last two games. David is also second on the team with nine tackles for loss, behind Jason Pierre-Paul, while Evans has one of the team's three interceptions. With David sidelined and middle linebacker Kwon Alexander on injured reserve, the Bucs have been without their two linebackers who generally play every snap, including in sub packages. That has forced the team to utilize some extra-DB packages more, with safety Andrew Adams often playing as a pseudo-linebacker.
"We’ve added a much bigger dime package than we had before," said Koetter. "Partly that was out of necessity. When Lavonte and Kwon are healthy, we don’t like to take them off the field, but we’ve sort of been forced to because of the injury situation."
Both the Buccaneers and their upcoming foe, the Carolina Panthers, will be managing lengthy injury reports as they prepare for Sunday's game. Tampa Bay's list runs 13 men long, while Carolina's is just one shorter. The Panthers, however, had nine players who did not practice at all on Wednesday, including cornerback Donte Jackson, tight end Greg Olsen and wide receiver Curtis Samuel. Tampa Bay had just three players sitting out completely: cornerback Carlton Davis, safety Isaiah Johnson and cornerback M.J. Stewart. The Buccaneers promoted David Rivers from the practice squad on Wednesday after Davis sustained a knee injury in the win over San Francisco. Stewart has missed the last four games with a foot injury.
* Buccaneers wideout Mike Evans ranks fifth in the NFL with an average of 97.5 receiving yards per game, and if you took out one obvious outlier, his average would jump all the way up to 105.7 yards per game, which would only trail Atlanta's Julio Jones.
Of course, you cannot remove that one unproductive outing, any more than you can ignore the season-high 179 yards he had against Cincinnati as an anomaly. What Evans can do is try to make sure it remains an anomaly.
The game in question, of course, was the first meeting between the Buccaneers and Panthers, in Charlotte in Week Nine. Carolina schemed to take Evans out of the picture as much as possible and made a point of shadowing him with their top cornerback, James Bradberry. It worked, as Evans was held to one catch for 16 yards. The Bucs' offense eventually adjusted by working the middle with tight end O.J. Howard and slot receiver Adam Humphries – two touchdowns each – but not before Evans was targeted 10 times.
The week following that game, Evans acknowledged that he had had his personal worst performance of the season and that Bradberry had played very well. Further film study has shown him more details about how the Panthers attacked him schematically, and he feels prepared to do better against it the second time around.
"Like I said, they game-planned really well," said Evans. "Even though they're a one-high [safety] team, it felt like Eric Reid was just coming to me no matter what. And then Bradberry was underneath just pressing that. So I've got to be better, more physical, faster and stronger, and I think I will be this time around."
Evans has had good success against the Panthers' defense in the past, including since Bradberry arrived as a second-round draft pick in 2016. He put up 107 yards on six catches against Carolina just last December and had topped 60 yards in each of the five games prior to this season's matchup. Evans is a fan of Bradberry's play, particularly the physical nature of it that matches up with his own, but he feels it's more important that he understands what Carolina is trying to do to him as a unit.
"I've just got to learn the whole scheme of their defense," said the Bucs' fifth-year wideout. "I know how he plays. I try to learn the whole scheme and I think I learned some things from last time. I think I'll be fine."
* Carolina lost a three-point thriller to Seattle last Sunday but still managed to pile up 476 yards of total offense, even more than the 407 it gained against Tampa Bay four weeks ago. The biggest piece of that 476-yard pie belonged to second-year back Christian McCaffrey, who surpassed 100 yards both rushing and receiving and had 237 yards from scrimmage, or 49.8% of the team's total output.
That would seem to make McCaffrey the top concern for Tampa Bay's defense during this week's preparations, but both Duffner and Koetter were quick to point out that they couldn't focus too much on just one player.
"They certainly have people that attract your attention and the only tough thing in that regard is the have more than just one," said Duffner. "If you focus on one guy too much, somebody else can wind up having a big game against you. This receiver [D.J.] Moore that they’ve got is really coming on. They’ve got really good receivers in addition to [Greg] Olsen at tight end. They’ve got multiple weapons and if you focus just on one particular, two particular guys, you could let the other part of their offense take over. Like every week, it’s a team game and we’ve got multiple people to be concerned with."
Duffner mentioned several of the Panthers' top pass-catchers and ballcarriers and didn't even get to the player whose name will likely be included in NFL MVP discussions this year. That would be the man distributing the football (or keeping it to himself), quarterback Cam Newton. In addition to working on a career-best 103.7 passer rating, Newton remains one of the most dangerous and involved quarterbacks in the league in his team's rushing attack.
"Carolina’s way, way more advanced running the ball and Cam’s really good at it," said Koetter. "That’s probably why they’re third in the league in rushing. He’s set numerous quarterback records for rushing, so it makes it tough. Then McCaffery’s playing well and they’ve added a lot of speed on the outside. Oh, by the way, they’ve got Olsen at tight end too. They’ve got it rolling offense right now. They’re tough to stop."