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Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Lions-Buccaneers: Top Storylines & Key Matchups in Week Six

Slowing down young pass-rusher Aidan Hutchinson and winning the battle between the Lions' strong rushing attack and the Bucs' stingy run defense will be keys in Sunday's battle of two first-place teams


The Tampa Bay Buccaneers will be evoking memories of a past era in franchise history in Week Six when they take on a former NFC Central rival, the Detroit Lions, on Sunday, October 15. The Buccaneers will be wearing their throwback 'Creamsicle' uniforms and celebrating the two decades the franchise wore their iconic original uniforms, but there is very much at stake in the season currently at hand.

In the only matchup on the NFL's Week Six slate that features two teams with one or fewer losses each, the 3-1 Buccaneers will be trying to add to or maintain their lead in the NFC South against a 4-1 Lions team that also owns the top spot in the NFC North. Tampa Bay is coming off its bye week, which followed a rousing 26-9 win in New Orleans in Week Four. Led by rangy safety Antoine Winfield Jr. (31 tackles, 2.0 sacks, two forced fumbles, four passes defensed) and space-eating defensive lineman Vita Vea (team-high 3.5 sacks), the Buccaneers have held their opponents to 17 or fewer points in each of their three wins. Resurgent quarterback Baker Mayfield has been sharp in his first month at the helm of the Bucs' offense, heading into Week Six with a 101.5 passer rating and a 7-2 TD-INT ratio.

Both of those units will be tested against a Lions team that ranks sixth in the NFL in both yards gained and yards allowed and has scored 29.6 points per game, good for fourth in the league. Jared Goff has put up numbers very similar to Mayfield's, including a 104.5 rating and a 9-3 TD-INT ratio, and his efforts have been supported by the new backfield duo of former Bear David Montgomery and first-round rookie Jahmyr Gibbs. Through five games, those two have combined to rush for 550 yards, catch 19 passes and score six touchdowns. Detroit's defense ranks third against the run and sixth against the pass and is led by emerging-star pass rusher Aidan Hutchinson and his 4.5 sacks. Another standout rookie, safety Brian Branch, has shined in the slot and has four passes defensed an interception. Yet another 2023 draft pick, tight end Sam LaPorta is second on the team with 25 catches and has already scored three times. The Lions, who won eight of their final 10 games last season, have maintained that momentum to start the 2023 season and present a very serious challenge to the Bucs' own efforts to stay on their early-season roll.

Here are four major storylines and four head-to-head player battles to keep an eye on as the Bucs take on a former division foe and try to maintain their hold on first place in their current division.


NFC Upstarts Vie for Conference Positioning – As noted above, the Buccaneers and Lions are the only two one or zero-loss teams playing each other in Week Six and both have taken early control of their respective divisions. However, it's fair to say that the 5-0 San Francisco 49ers and the 5-0 Philadelphia Eagles – last year's NFC Championship Game opponents – are perceived as the powerhouses of the conference through five weeks. At 4-1, the Lions have the third-best record in the conference and are delivering on the rather substantial preseason hype that their hot finish to 2022 generated. The Buccaneers, conversely, did not engender high expectations for 2023 outside of their own headquarters and are thus considered on the early surprise teams in the NFC. Sunday's matchup at Raymond James Stadium is an opportunity for either team to strengthen its bona fides within the conference hierarchy. The Lions may have already done so when they opened the NFL season with a road win over the defending-champion Kansas City Chiefs, but the Buccaneers' lone appearance in prime time so far this season ended in their only loss so far against the aforementioned Eagles. Every win is as important as the last one, but in terms of national perception, a victory over the streaking Lions would announce that the Buccaneers are a true contender in the NFC playoff hunt.

Keeping Hutch in Check – Detroit's defense has improved significantly over the one that finished last in yards allowed and 30th in points allowed a year ago, and the play of second-year defensive end Aidan Hutchinson is a big reason why. Hutchinson, the second-overall pick in the 2022 draft, already showed the depth of his potential when he racked up 9.5 sacks in his debut season and finished second in the Defensive Rookie of the Year voting, but he's off to an even hotter start in 2023. The former Michigan star leads the Lions with 4.5 sacks and has also broken up four passes, forced and recovered a fumble and grabbed the fourth interception of his young career. Hutchinson, who frequently unleashes a lethal spin move, is tied for the NFL lead with 29 QB pressures, according to NFL Next Gen Stats, with at least five in every game. In Detroit's dominant win over Carolina in Week Five, he recorded an average get-off time at the snap of a terrifying 0.69 seconds. Keeping Hutchinson as far away as possible from Baker Mayfield will be a critical goal for the Buccaneers' blockers on Sunday.

Reinforcements on the Way? – The Bucs' own pass rush has been effective, too, averaging 3.0 sacks per game and ranking 16th in sacks per pass play. That group could become even more menacing in Week Six of rookie defensive lineman Calijah Kancey is able to return from the calf injury that has limited his availability for the last two months. Kancey missed most of training camp after sustaining the injury, then returned for the regular-season opener at Minnesota only to aggravate it after just 11 plays. The 19th-overall pick in this year's draft, Kancey has explosive speed and showed that off with a QB hit on just the third snap of the season against the Vikings. Tampa Bay was one of four teams to get the first byes of the season in Week Five, and while that generally is considered disadvantageous, it actually came at a good time for a somewhat battered roster. In addition, to Kancey, the Bucs hope to get cornerback Jamel Dean back in the lineup after he was sidelined by neck and shoulder injuries and should have Vita Vea (pectoral) and Devin White (foot) closer to full strength. In addition, the bye week gave top receiver Mike Evans more time to recover after he missed the second half of the Week Four win in New Orleans with a hamstring strain.

Who Runs the Show? – After a surprising downturn in 2022, the Buccaneers' rush defense is back in the top 10, where it lived for the entirety of the previous three seasons. The Eagles and their second-ranked ground game did slash the Buccaneers for 201 yards in Week Three, but otherwise Tampa Bay has held each of its opponents to 79 rushing yards or fewer. That included a masterful performance against Alvin Kamara and the Saints in Week Four. Vea is making his presence felt at the point of attack, linebackers Lavonte David and Devin White are filling the gaps with precision and safety Antoine Winfield Jr. has been a force around the line of scrimmage as well. That crew will have another chance to prove it can slow down even the best rushing attacks in the NFL when the Lions bring David Montgomery, Jahmyr Gibbs and company to Tampa on Sunday. Montgomery averaged 3.9 yards per carry and roughly six rushing touchdowns per season over four years with the Bears but is picking up 4.2 yards per tote as a Lion and has already found the end zone six times. Gibbs, the 12th-overall pick in the 2023 draft, missed the Lions last game due to a hamstring injury but is off to a good start, with 179 rushing yards, a 4.6-yard average per carry and 14 receptions for 70 yards. Detroit's offensive line, which sent right tackle Penei Sewell and center Frank Ragnow to the Pro Bowl last year, is considered one of the NFL's best blocking units and has propelled Detroit to the league's seventh-best rushing attack so far.


1. Lions RB David Montgomery vs. Buccaneers S Antoine Winfield, Jr.

Running behind left guard Jonah Jackson, a Pro Bowler in 2021, David Montgomery has had a lot of success on runs to the inside left so far as a Lion, such as the 66 (out of 109 total) yards he produced in that direction in last Sunday's win over Carolina. The Buccaneers will obviously try to stop that trend and keep Montgomery bottled up near the line of scrimmage, but if he breaks through the initial line of defenders, the defense will need to have strong work from its linebackers and other second-level defenders. One of the most important figures in that group is rising-star safety Antoine Winfield Jr., who leads the Buccaneers in tackles with 31, including 16 on rushing plays, which is only one fewer than team-leader Devin White. Winfield is back to playing free safety after spending much of last season as the Bucs' nickel corner, but that hasn't stopped the team's defensive architects from deploying him around the line of scrimmage quite a bit. He's a very sure tackler who doesn't shy away from contact, which will help in any battles with the hard-charging Montgomery, who also isn't afraid to take on defenders. The two might also meet each other when Montgomery is providing pass protection and Winfield inevitably tries to get at Jared Goff with a handful of well-timed blitzes.

2. Buccaneers WR Trey Palmer vs. Lions S Brian Branch

Trey Palmer and Brian Branch are both 2023 draft picks, and even though the Lions safety was selected 146 picks earlier than the Bucs' receiver, both players have made an instant impact on their respective teams. Early on, the Lions seem to have gotten a steal in Alabama's Branch, widely considered a potential first-round pick before he fell to them midway through the second round. He is starting in the slot and has already shown to be the heady, do-everything defender he was for the Crimson Tide, already notching 25 tackles, an interception and four passes defensed. The Buccaneers surely believe they got a steal as well in the sixth round when they nabbed the Nebraska speedster after trading a future pick to get a shot at him. Palmer scored his second touchdown of the season on yet another acrobatic catch, and while he has just six receptions so far he's already displayed a knack for showing up in big moments. While offensive coordinator Dave Canales has moved his receivers around quite a bit to give defenses different looks, it is Palmer who has played the most snaps in the slot (65) of anyone on the team. Presuming that remains the case in Week Six, these two rookies should have ample opportunities to prove who was the bigger draft steal.

3. Lions T Taylor Decker vs. Buccaneers OLB Joe Tryon-Shoyinka

Taylor Decker is the blindside anchor for an offensive line that has provided the relatively immobile Jared Goff with plenty of time to operate this season. The Lions' offense ranks fourth in sacks allowed per pass play and have only let Goff be sacked seven times in five outings so far. Decker, a first-round pick back in 2016, just made his 100th career start last weekend and is passionate about the Lions finally giving its fans some postseason hope. The 6-7, 318-pound blocker was playing some of the best football of his career during the Lions' 2022 surge and was named a Pro Bowl alternate, and he has continued to excel in his eighth season. While third-year edge rusher Joe Tryon-Shoyinka has actually dropped into coverage quite frequently this season (116 times, second-highest total among NFL edges and 23.9% of his pass snaps), he has still found a way to make an impact as a pass-rusher, with 2.0 sacks and four QB hits. Tryon-Shoyinka most commonly rushes from the right edge of the Bucs' defensive front, which would put him in contention with Decker for much of the afternoon. The Bucs' pass-rusher has beaten several opposing tackles this season with an explosive get-off that gets him a clear path to the quarterback. Tryon-Shoyinka's average get-off at the snap of 0.84 seconds ranks first among all of the Bucs' front-line defenders.

4. Buccaneers C Robert Hainsey vs. Lions DL Alim McNeill

Alim McNeill, a third-round pick in 2021, has already matched his career high with 2.0 sacks this season, giving the Lions an interior pass-rushing complement to Hutchinson on the edge. He's also recorded four QB hits and a forced fumble. After playing last season at nearly 330 pounds, McNeill slimmed down over the offseason to closer to 300 pounds and is playing faster as a result. He has shown the occasional ability to take over the battle in the trenches, such as the game against the Giants last season in which he racked up a staggering 10 quarterback pressures. McNeill was credited with 22 QB pressures all of last season and he's already up to 11 in five games this year, improving his pressure rate from 5.6% to 8.1%. The former NC State standout frequently lines up directly over the left guard, but then often stunts toward the middle, trying to get past or go through the center. Hainsey, also in his third season and also a third-round pick in 2021, anchors the middle of the Bucs' offensive line and plays a critical role in helping Baker Mayfield make pre-snap diagnoses and recognize potential blitzers. As he settles into his second season of starting in place of injured Pro Bowl center Ryan Jensen, Hainsey has drawn praise from the Bucs' coaching staff for his play at the pivot. The Notre Dame product has helped Tampa Bay's offensive line allow the league's second-lowest sacks-per-pass-play average.

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