The Tampa Bay Buccaneers take on the New York Giants in Week 11 on Monday night, and we're counting down the hours to the 8:15 p.m. ET kickoff at Raymond James Stadium. After a week of preparation, here's what it all comes down to:
5 TAMPA BAY PLAYERS TO WATCH
Devin White. Though it was unfortunately in a losing effort, White emerged as the all-over-the-field playmaking linebacker he was in last year's playoff run last Sunday at Washington. White combined 18 tackles with two sacks, three tackles for loss and three quarterback hits and was the central reason the Bucs' defense held Washington to a low 4.5 yards per play. White, who had 9.0 sacks in 2020 and was a turnover machine in the postseason, had played well during the first half of 2021 but had not provided a large number of splash plays. White and the Buccaneers' defense could be poised for a big-second half surge, beginning on Monday night against the Giants. White's lateral pursuit and ability to shoot through gaps in an instant will be key to containing running back Saquon Barkley and keeping the surprisingly fast Daniel Jones from breaking out into the open field.
Mike Evans. Yes, this is two weeks in a row on this list for Evans, but with him on the verge of breaking one of the most significant marks in the franchise's record books we have to keep the spotlight trained on him. Evans tied Mike Alstott with his 71st career touchdown last Sunday at Washington and could take the record for his own as soon as Monday night. He has scored in three straight games to give him nine total TDs on the season; his next one will give him his fourth season with at least 10 touchdowns. All of the other players in franchise history have combined for two seasons of double-digit touchdown receptions. His touchdown last Sunday was on a 40-yard go route, which is of course an Evans specialty. He has five touchdowns on deep balls this season, tied for second in the NFL, and his average separation from the defender on these routes is 2.7 yards, which also ranks fifth in the league. The Buccaneers have relied largely on the short passing game in recent weeks but Evans has still managed to get deep for at least one completion of 40-plus yards (plus a total of five touchdowns) over the last three games.
Antoine Winfield, Jr. In a secondary that has seen a lot of upheaval in 2021, Winfield has played the most snaps of any of the contributors. Though he has lined up all over the field his NFL Next Gen Stats pre-snap heat map shows him most often between the hash marks 10 to 15 yards off the line of scrimmage. New York has a number of offensive weapons who are adept at working the middle of the field, including electric rookie Kadarius Toney and tight end Evan Engram. Like White, Winfield is one of the most likely sources of a big play on the Bucs' defense, and so far this year he has two forced fumbles, one fumble recovery, one sack and one interception. If he comes up with another big play on Monday night it will be the second year in a row that he has stung the Giants. In the Bucs' 25-23 win in the Meadowlands last year – also on a Monday night – Winfield alertly sniffed out an outlet pass to running back Dion Lewis on a two-point conversion attempt and somehow closed the gap in time to knock Jones' pass away at the last second to close out the victory. According to NGS, Winfield was 6.7 yards away from Lewis when Jones hit the top of his dropback, at which point the play was almost certain to succeed.
Ali Marpet. On Wednesday, Head Coach Bruce Arians said it would be "a crime" if Marpet, the Bucs' starting left guard, was left off this year's Pro Bowl roster. Marpet has been playing at a Pro Bowl level for several years but has yet to get that recognition; the Buccaneers' status as reigning champs and Marpet's strong play again in 2021 could change that. Marpet is part of an offensive line that has allowed only 12 sacks despite an incredibly high volume of passes by Tom Brady. The Buccaneers have the lowest sacks-allowed percentage in the NFL. Marpet is also a powerful blocker in the run game and is a key factor in the team's "duo" run schemes on handoffs to Leonard Fournette up the middle. For the second week in a row, Marpet and the Bucs' other interior blockers face a stiff challenge with a strong pair of opposing down linemen. This week it's Leonard Williams, who has 5.5 sacks and 19 quarterback pressures, and Dexter Lawrence, who is a mountainous and hard-to-move nose tackle.
Jaelon Darden. The Buccaneers' fourth-round draft pick, Darden has had the team's return job for about a month and several times has looked poised to break a long runback on punts. He is averaging 10.7 yards per punt return and 22.2 yards per kickoff return so far and on Monday night he'll go up against a Giants' punt coverage team that ranks 26th in the NFL, allowing 9.9 yards per attempt. The Buccaneers traded up early on the third day of the draft to make sure they got Darden, believing his lateral quickness and dizzying open-field moves would make him a dangerous return man at the NFL level. The Buccaneers have also started using Darden a bit more on offense, giving him 26 snaps over the past three games combined. Darden had a 29-yard catch against the Saints in Week Eight but last weekend lost the ball after a short pass that was deemed an interception after it popped into the air and was hauled in by William Jackson. The rookie demonstrated that he could provide big plays in the passing attack in New Orleans and would surely like to get an opportunity to atone for the miscue in Washington.
4 STATS THAT MATTER
· 128.9. Many of the Buccaneers' opponents in 2021 have elected to play a lot of two-high safety looks in an effort to reduce the number of big plays that Tom Brady and company can generate in the passing attack. Tampa Bay has still managed to put up the most passing yards in the NFL (315.6 per game) and Brady leads the NFL with 27 touchdown passes. One of the reasons for this is that Brady has made the short passing game work. His 128.6 passer rating on short passes (0-9 yards in the air), not only the best in the NFL this season but the best by any quarterback in any season since NFL Next Gen Stats began tracking it in 2016. Brady and the Bucs had their least effective passing effort in last weekend's loss at Washington but he still completed 13 of 18 short passes for 103 yards, a touchdown and one interception on a fluky play involving rookie wideout Jaelon Darden. All of that said, Brady also leads the NFL in completions (38) and touchdowns (13) on vertical routes this year.
· 9/100. The return of Murphy-Bunting would be a boost to the Buccaneers' injury-plagued secondary but it would also be yet another shuffle to a lineup that has been different almost every week. The Buccaneers have now given more than 100 defensive snaps to nine different defensive backs, which is tied for the most in the NFL with Atlanta, Indianapolis, Jacksonville and the New York Jets. Those other four teams have combined for a 13-25 record so far. Among the cornerbacks, the position hit the hardest by the injuries, Jamel Dean has played the most snaps (460) and been the team's most dependable cover man. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, when Dean is the nearest defender to a targeted player he has allowed two touchdowns, picked off two passes and given up an opposing passer rating of 61.7.
· 21.5%/12.6%. The Giants have put much effort into rebuilding their offensive line, including the selection of three linemen in the first three rounds over the past four seasons. By the end of the 2020 season it hadn't appeared to be working, as New York allowed a 21.5% pressure probability last year, according to NGS. That number has improved significantly in 2021, down to 12.6%, which ranks 14th in the NFL.
· 380.6/277.5. It is beyond denial that the Giants' offense is better when Saquon Barkley is involved. The fourth-year running back has missed the last four games due to injury but has a good chance to return to action on Monday night against the Buccaneers. This year, when Barkley has been active the Giants' offense has generated 380.6 yards per game, but that number drops to 277.5 in the games in which he's been unavailable. That's a difference of more than 100 yards.
3 LINEUP NOTES
· There appears to be a good chance that the Buccaneers will get tight end Rob Gronkowski back in the mix after he has missed all but six snaps over the last six games due to rib and back ailments. Gronkowski practiced without limits on Thursday and Friday, got his usual end-of-the-week day off and was listed as questionable on Saturday's final injury report. Both Arians and Gronkowski said the arrow was trending up on his return. The veteran pass-catcher was off to a very good start before his injury in Week Three, racking up 16 catches for 184 yards and four touchdowns. However, wide receiver Antonio Brown will miss a fourth straight game due to an ankle injury.
· The Giants will be without starting strong safety Logan Ryan, who was ruled out due to COVID protocols and will miss a game for the first time this season. The only time that either Ryan or free safety Xavier McKinney didn't start this season, it was Jabrill Peppers in the lineup at safety, but Peppers is on injured reserve and won't return this season. The player listed behind Ryan on the Giants' depth chart is J.R. Reed, but the only safety of three current reserves who has played any defensive snaps this year is Julian Love. The third reserve, Nate Ebner, is also out for Monday's game due to a knee injury.
· The Buccaneers' defense will likely have to play without standout nose tackle Vita Vea for the first time this season. Vea suffered a knee injury on the final defensive play of the Bucs' Week 10 loss at Washington and, while the long-term prognosis is better than originally feared, he was not able to practice this week and was designated as doubtful on Saturday. Complicating matters is the ankle injury that Rakeem Nunez-Roches sustained on the practice field on Friday, which has made him questionable for Monday's game as well. Nunez-Roches replaced Vea in the starting lineup last season when Vea missed 13 games due to an ankle injury.
2 CHALLENGES PRESENTED BY THE GIANTS
Though they've had trouble getting them all on the field at the same time, the Giants have a deep and talented group of pass-catchers, at a variety of positions featuring a lot of speed, from Kenny Golladay to Kadarius Toney, Evan Engram, Sterling Shepard, John Ross, Saquon Barkley and more. On defense, the secondary is manned by a number of proven and productive veterans – corners James Bradberry and Adoree' Jackson and safety Logan Ryan – and is now seeing the emergence of a young star in safety Xavier McKinney, a second-round pick in 2020. Here is a more specific challenge on each side of the ball the Buccaneers will face on Sunday.
For the second week in a row, Tampa Bay's defense will have to contend with a quarterback who is always a threat to take off on the ground. If anything, New York's Daniel Jones is even faster than Washington's Taylor Heinicke, and he's already run for 960 yards in just 36 career games. Jones had an 80-yard run against Eagles last year and he took off on a 46-yard jaunt against Washington earlier this season. He is second on the team in 2021 with 258 rushing yards, is averaging 5.2 yards per carry and has already scored twice on the ground. All of the usual keys to containing a mobile quarterback apply – setting the edge, being disciplined in rush lanes, not letting holes open up in the middle for quick escape – but then there is also the simple matter of Jones's surprising speed. Earlier this season, Jones reach a top speed of 20.07 miles per hour on a run against the Saints, making him one of only four quarterbacks to top 20 MPH on any carry this season. When the Giants design a run for Jones, as opposed to a scramble, he performs even better than expected. According to NFL Next Gen Stats, Jones has gained +204 yards over expected on designed runs since the start of 2020; only noted runner Lamar Jackson has more in that span.
Also for the second week in a row, the Buccaneers' interior offensive linemen will have their work cut out for them on Monday night. In Week 10, Ali Marpet, Ryan Jensen and Alex Cappa had to deal with the Washington IDL duo of Jonathan Allen and Daron Payne. Those three helped keep Tom Brady from taking a sack in the game, but Allen did have a hard hit early on Brady that disrupted a third-down throw. This week, the challenge is the Giants' D-Line duo of Leonard Williams and Dexter Lawrence, and the dynamics are similar. Like Allen, Williams is a very effective pass-rusher and he leads the team with 5.5 sacks (tied with rookie OLB Azeez Ojulari). And like Payne, Lawrence is a huge and strong force in the middle who can tie up blockers and eliminate rushing lanes. Last year, Williams had the fourth-highest sack rate (2.4%) among interior defensive linemen. Williams will also occasionally provide a challenge for left tackle Donovan Smith, as he occasionally moves out to the edge to rush the passer and has been very effective when doing so.
1 KEY THOUGHT FROM BRUCE ARIANS
On there being a large number of big upsets in the NFL in 2021:
"Yeah, I think especially in division games where there's a little bit of a rivalry. But, yeah, there's been some major upsets this year. Everybody's good. Usually it depends on how good their quarterback plays."