The Tampa Bay Buccaneers believed they were ready to be playoff contenders in 2017. Now they'll try to prove their ready for prime time.
Not only are the Buccaneers playing in front of a national audience for the first time since the 2017 season began, but they're doing so against the perfect opponent against which to gauge their playoff aspirations: the defending NFL champions. For the first time since 1997, the New England Patriots are coming to Tampa for a regular-season game; they bring with them the title from last winter's Super Bowl LI.
Some Buccaneers will be playing in a game this big for the first time, such as impressive rookie linebacker Kendell Beckwith. Others, like wide receiver DeSean Jackson are familiar with – and have a history of shining under – this sort of spotlight. It remains to be seen how the team as a whole will react to being on the national stage.
Pictures of the Buccaneers' players arriving for their Week 5 game against the Patriots.
"That's going to be different for every guy," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "You've got 46 guys and all the coaches – it's going to be different for each one. You want to play in big games, right? You don't make it this far to say you want to play in front of nobody. Our crowd was great last week and I'm expecting big things from them tonight, as well."
By "last week," Koetter means four days ago, as the Buccaneers beat the New York Giants, 25-23, just this past Sunday at Raymond James Stadium. Every team in the league has to deal with the short preparation time of a Thursday game at least once; it's the Bucs' and Patriots' turn this week. Last season, Tampa Bay's Sunday-Thursday pair of games, against Oakland and Atlanta, was the low point of the season. This time, the team has a chance to make it a launching pad with two huge victories. How well they succeed in getting mentally and physically ready in just a few days may determine if they can finish off that double dip.
"That's the challenge on Thursday night games," said Koetter. "Mainly the challenge is for the players to get their bodies back in order to play on that short of a turnaround. And then for the coaches, it's a little bit more challenging because it does cut your game-planning down. The tradeoff is, the players get some time off on the back end."
Increasing the difficulty level in achieving that feat is the presence of Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, still going more than strong in his age 40 season, as evidenced by his 116.2 passer rating and New England's #1 standing in the league's offensive ranking. Brady was given an important new target this offseason in speedy former Saint Brandin Cooks, which could be important on a night in which tight end Rob Gronkowski is unavailable. Tampa Bay's defense has already experienced something of a roller coaster season in just three games, but it may face its toughest challenge of the year on Thursday night.
"We say all the time how Jameis [Winston] is getting better and he's going into, what, his 36th start," said Koetter. "Tom Brady has 17 years of experience over him, so you think his experience meter is so far up there. He's seen it all, done it all at the highest level multiple, multiple times. Maybe the best quarterback that's ever played and their offense is functioning at a high level right now. They added Cooks, so they added speed. [They have] a cast of other good role players around them, so we're going to have our hands full."
Tampa Bay will have to defend Brady and company without defensive starters Kwon Alexander, Lavonte David and Keith Tandy, all out due to injury. Safety T.J. Ward, who had been grabbing a significant amount of playing time before suffering a hip injury in Week Two, will also be sidelined. Those four are inactive for the game, as are center Joe Hawley, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and tackle Leonard Wester.
In contrast, New England's defense has struggled mightily through the first month of the season, ranking last in the league in yards allowed and second-to-last in points allowed. The Patriots have given up more big plays than any team in the league, and some of that has been caused by glaring breakdowns in the secondary. However, Koetter and the Buccaneers expect the Patriots to arrive at Raymond James Stadium with a defense that has found a way to adjust and play much tighter. Rather than assume that yards will be easy to come by, the Bucs believe they can succeed based on their own offensive merits.
"I think in this game we just have to worry about ourselves and run our offense," said Koetter. "New England traditionally changes what they do from week to week. They did struggle a little bit with some man pick-ups against Carolina last week. I'm sure they're going to have those worked out tonight. We're going to do well if we can mix run and pass, similarly to what we did last week. If we can hold onto the ball and end up scoring points, those are good things."
The Bucs' attack has one additional weapon this week, as running back Doug Martin has returned from a suspension that began at the end of last season. He'll make his 2017 regular-season debut tonight and likely be part of a shared backfield, primarily with Jacquizz Rodgers. Martin is well-rested, but he also only had one full-speed practice before Thursday night's game, so it remains to be seen how much he will be able to contribute.
"The day we did go full-speed, you could tell that Doug had his fresh legs, and Doug knows our system inside and out," said Koetter. "We're going to use Doug some tonight, but we're coming off a game where Jacquizz played very well and we'll use both of those guys along with Charles Sims tonight. Peyton Barber will primarily be used as a special teams player."
The Patriots declared Gronkowski inactive, along with running back Rex Burkhead, who will miss his third game in a row. The New England defense will be without starting defensive tackle Alan Branch as well as cornerback Eric Rowe, who has started one game this season. The Patriots' other three inactive players are linebacker Harvey Langi and offensive linemen Cole Croston and LaAdrian Waddle.
The Buccaneers and Patriots kickoff at 8:25 p.m. ET at Raymond James stadium. The game will be televised nationally by CBS and the NFL Network and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.