The back-and-forth series continues. In 'List with a Twist,' Senior Writer Scott Smith and I are discussing a variety of Buccaneers-related topics prior to the start of the 2022 NFL season. However, our list diverges from the plethora of compilations occupying the internet. We are creating a variety of topics regarding the upcoming season, but the person creating the rundown does not get to choose his or her own prompt. Scott Smith and I will alternate creating topics and making the other answer with their own top-five ranking.
My second challenge to Scott will require some film study on the Bucs' opposition. Without further delay, let's dive right into it.
Today's Topic: After reviewing the Bucs' 2022 opponents, what one-on-one matchups catch the eye? In other words, which battles do fans need to circle on the schedule now.
After going through the schedule myself, many highly anticipated matchups line the 17-game season, including battles between Bucs' Devin White and Panthers' Christian McCaffrey and Bucs' Lavonte David versus Chiefs' Travis Kelce. Football is often decided by the mismatches. Whether that is the clash between a cornerback and a receiver, an offensive tackle against a defensive end, or a linebacker against a running back/tight end, each matchup creates an exhilarating show on the gridiron week-after-week. I will even expand your options. For this challenge, you can dip into coaches as well. More than just the athletes on the field, often the chess match between an offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator draws attention. Who creates the better gameplan and exploits the opponents' weaknesses? All of the above is fair game.
Scott, you are on the hot seat. It is your job to overview the best against, well, the best of the 2022 schedule. So, who will you choose to pinpoint? Many matchups will influence the games but only a set few will have the power to dictate the outcome. I'm impatiently waiting to read your interpretation of the pinnacle of one-on-one battles.
Scott: That's a good question, Brianna, and there are a ton of good options. I had a hard time narrowing it down to five. Here's some highly-anticipated one-on-one battles that did not make my list, but certainly could have: White vs. McCaffrey and David vs. Kelce, as suggested above; Vita Vea vs. Creed Humphrey; Chris Godwin vs. Jalen Ramsey (particularly when both are in the slot); Antoine Winfield Jr. vs. George Kittle; Shaq Mason vs. Aaron Donald; Jamel Dean vs. D.J. Moore; Donovan Smith vs. Micah Parsons; and on and on.
You didn't set any restrictions, Brianna, but I'm going to put a few on myself. First, I'm only going to consider one matchup for any single player. You'll see below that Carlton Davis is on my list, and since Davis sometimes shadows the opposition's top receiver, he's going to get a lot of marquee one-on-ones this season. I chose only one of them. Also I chose not to include Tom Brady, even though his level of success is probably the single most critical factor to the outcome of the Bucs' season or any individual game. I just think it's a stretch to pick any one player on the other side and call it a one-on-one matchup with the quarterback. I considered Brady versus Saints Head Coach (and former Defensive Coordinator) Dennis Allen, since Allen's defense has held Brady to a 71.5 passer rating over the course of their four regular-season meetings since he joined the Buccaneers. And Brianna did give me free rein to consider coaches, but ultimately I had too many one-on-ones between players I wanted to get in and only five spots to work with. So here are my choices:
5. Devin White vs. Lamar Jackson
The Ravens one-of-a-kind quarterback is unlike any other player the Buccaneers will face in 2021 and it's not going to be easy to contain him. The Bucs' defense did get a little taste of a good running quarterback last year in Philadelphia's Jalen Hurts – twice, actually – and they contained him well by smothering read-options and designed runs early in each game. But it's no offense to Hurts to say he's not quite on the same level of Jackson, perhaps the greatest running quarterback of all time.
The blueprint will likely be the same, however: Look for the quarterback keepers early and try to take that part of his game away from the beginning. Perhaps the Buccaneers will even employ a spy on Jackson, and if they do that man is likely to be White. White's closing speed on the quarterback on delayed blitzes is one of the most impressive aspects of his game, and the same thing can be applied on zone reads and other quarterback running plays. On a zone read, the quarterback generally reads the defensive end and keeps the ball if the end crashes down inside; similarly, on such plays White needs to quickly diagnosis whether Jackson has handed off or taken off on his own and get to the football. There aren't too many linebackers better equipped to go up against a running threat quarterback like Jackson.
4. Shaquil Barrett vs. David Bakhtiari
This is another case in which I could have picked a number of critical matchups for the Buccaneers' top edge rusher. In fact, I almost went with Chiefs left tackle Orlando Brown, a battle that will take place only a week after this one. Ultimately, I thought the Packers game was a more important one for the Bucs to win since it's an NFC opponent and that could ultimately factor into playoff tiebreakers more so than a win over an AFC foe.
If you recall, two weeks before the Buccaneers chased Kansas City's Patrick Mahomes into oblivion in Super Bowl LV they were also quite unkind to Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers in the NFC Championship Game. The Bucs' rabid front line sacked Rodgers five times and hit him eight times, and Barrett was responsible for three of those sacks and four of the QB hits. Barrett was absolutely at the top of his game as the Buccaneers' closed out their 2020 championship run.
But you know who didn't play in that game? Yeah, David Bakhtiari. The Packers' star left tackle won first-team Associated Press All-Pro honors that year but suffered a season-ending knee injury in practice just before the playoffs. The starting left tackle for that game was Billy Turner, who had been the right tackle and who has five fewer AP All-Pro selections than Bakhtiari (who has five). Bakhtiari also got hurt just before last year's NFC Divisional Round loss to San Francisco, and Rodgers was once again sacked five times. Simply put, the Packers' stalwart is in the discussion for best left tackle in the NFL and he will provide Barrett – one of the NFL's best edge rushers – with a much bigger challenge than he faced in that 2020 playoff contest.
3. Mike Evans vs. Marshon Lattimore
Brianna you could have given me this twisted list topic last year (which would have been weird since we didn't know each other yet) and you could give it to me again next year and Evans-Lattimore is going to be on it. This is simply appointment viewing every time the Buccaneers and Saints get together.
The Evans-Lattimore matchup is an avatar for the overall emotions between these two teams, which have certainly grown sharper on the Buccaneers' side as they have endured seven straight losses in the regular-season series with their division foes. Evans was asked point-blank about how his feelings regarding the Saints during last week's minicamp.
"I like the competition, I like the rivalry, but we don't like the Saints, obviously," he said. "They beat us twice last year and hopefully we can get them back this year."
As for his personal battles with Lattimore, the Saints' four-time Pro Bowl corner, Evans said this in January of 2021: "It's definitely a great rivalry. When we play each other, there's a lot of emotion, a lot of physicality."
Indeed, there is, and quite frankly the emotions of this matchup occasionally got to Evans in his earlier years. There was certainly a stretch in which Lattimore handled Evans better than any other opponent in the league. The only two games in Evans' career that he finished without a catch were against New Orleans, and five of the eight times he's been held to one or fewer grabs have also come against the Saints. Lattimore wasn't responsible for all of that, but he definitely played a big part in it.
The tide has started to turn of late. Evans had a very strong game against Lattimore in last season's barn-burner of a loss in the Superdome, an effort that included a 41-yard touchdown catch over his main nemesis and some things that don't show up in the box score, like dominant downfield blocking and winning off the line to create space and draw extra coverage away from his teammates. Evans has caught a touchdown pass each of the last three times the Bucs have played in New Orleans, including the 2020 NFC Divisional Playoff win. Evans has been a star in the NFL since Day One and has always been productive, but he has also improved along the way over eight seasons (and counting). One area of obvious improvement has been in controlling his emotions. He's just as competitive as ever but he doesn't let frustrating moments like a disappointing offensive pass-interference call or a particularly physical route run against Lattimore get him into trouble. That should help him as he and Lattimore continue their spirited battle twice a year.
2. Carlton Davis vs. Ja'Marr Chase
Some of the number-one receivers Davis may have to deal with – and possibly shadow for 60 minutes – this season include CeeDee Lamb, Cooper Kupp, Deebo Samuel and DeAndre Hopkins. However, I'm most excited to see if he can play the shutdown role against the Bengals' dynamic second-year receiver, Chase.
Chase's rookie season was nothing short of remarkable, as he finished with 81 catches for 1,455 yards and 13 touchdowns. He finished fourth in the NFL in yards and third in touchdowns, among all players, not just rookies, and he averaged an eye-popping 18.0 yards per catch. Chase was a weekly highlight reel of huge plays off both downfield shots and quick connections that he turned into big gains after the catch. The NFL's Offensive Rookie of the Year and a second-team All-Pro had the advantage of reuniting with his college quarterback, Joe Burrow, and that chemistry will only grow in Year Two.
The key word in this matchup is going to be separation. Chase usually creates it very quickly because he is both lightning-fast off the line and in his breaks and strong enough to win physical battles. He's also incredible at contorting his body and finding deep balls that aren't necessarily exactly on target. Meanwhile, Davis is very good at staying tight with his targeted opponent on just about any kind of route. He can win in press-man coverage thanks to his size and strength but he can also mirror receivers' routes to a degree that most NFL cornerbacks cannot. I won't be surprised if the Buccaneers' choose to make this one of Davis's "shadow" days, and his one-on-ones against Chase should be extremely entertaining, and likely critical to the outcome of the game.
1. Tristan Wirfs vs. T.J. Watt
I put this one at the top of my list because you could argue that this is a direct matchup of the best player on each team. I'm not going to actually make that argument because, you know, Tom Brady, but it is true that Wirfs was the Buccaneers' only first-team AP All-Pro last year. Meanwhile, Watt was merely the 2021 NFL Defensive Player of the Year, which is a stunning accomplishment in a league that still features Aaron Donald.
I don't think Wirfs will be alone in trying to contain Watt, but he'll be the Buccaneers' primary weapon in that difficult endeavor. Last season, Watt rushed primarily off the left edge of the Steelers' line, which has him in Wirfs' territory and coming at Brady from his front side. All Watt did last year was rack up 15.0 sacks…what's that? That was actually 2020 when he was second in the DPOTY voting? Oh, Watt upped his game to 22.5 sacks in 2021 to go with 39 quarterback hits. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Watt generated a sack on 5.7% of his pass rushes in 2021, the highest full-season number they've ever recorded. Wirfs won't have much time to figure out what Watt is trying to do because the Pittsburgh star gets off the line in an average of 0.85 seconds.
Fortunately, Wirfs has proved time and time again over his young career that he can handle the league's best pass rushers and often pitch a shutout in terms of sacks and QB hits. According to Pro Football Focus, Wirfs has only allowed three sacks on the 2,529 offensive snaps he has played through his first two seasons. The Bucs' young star is freakishly athletic and light on his feet, and he's also a technician who keeps himself in perfect position to counter his opponent's next move.
Almost nobody slows Watt down. He had at least one sack in 12 of the 16 games he played in last year, including the playoffs. And almost nobody gives Wirfs a bad day. It's the perfect embodiment of an otherwise overused phrase: 'immovable object meets unstoppable force.' Both combatants in this battle have a last name that begins with a 'W' and whoever comes out on top will probably see his team get another 'W.'
Brianna's Thoughts: I cannot argue with a single selection that Scott made in his top five. Frankly, with the top-tier level of pass rushers that the Bucs must face in 2022 including Aaron Donald, Myles Garrett, Micah Parsons, Cameron Jordan and Watt as mentioned above, the entire list could have been based on battles at the line of scrimmage. Games are often dictated by the trenches, but I am glad you strayed from consistency in the rundown to feature many other integral aspects.
I absolutely loved that you referred to the Evans-Lattimore clash as a microcosm of the rivalry between both sides. With the evolution of the NFL in recent years exhibiting more pass-centric offenses each year and the role of a fullback largely obsolete, the showdown between receivers and cornerbacks has taken centerstage, leading to another pair on Scott's list with Davis and Chase. Which, I am elated that he described the in-depth X's and O's for both the Bucs' lockdown corner and the Bengals' YAC-machine, because given their respective skillsets off the line of scrimmage with Chase's speed and Davis's ability to press receivers off their route path, it seems those two were tailor made to combat each other on the field. All in all, the essence of one-on-one matchups embodies the grander theme of football but on a smaller scale: victory and defeat. Each week, players spend countless hours studying film and memorizing their opponent. Every move is characterized and calculated to counteract on Sunday. Mental fortitude is what the game is based on, and the detail described above encompasses that truth.