For the first time since the 2014 season finale, someone other than Jameis Winston will start a regular-season game at quarterback for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. That someone is Ryan Fitzpatrick, who has the advantage of having done this before.
Not only has Fitzpatrick started 116 games in his career already, but he has already had a "first start" for six other franchises. He's won three of the last four, including his first start just two seasons ago for Sunday's opponent, the New York Jets. The Buccaneers are confident Fitzpatrick can lead a productive offense against the Jets as Winston gets some needed rest for his injured shoulder.
"The main thing Ryan brings is experience," said Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "This is going to be the 117th start of his career. Ironically enough, he played for the Jets, so he's familiar with their personnel, he's familiar with their scheme. He's played against [Head] Coach [Todd] Bowles before. That's what we brought him here for, an insurance policy if something like this were to happen to Jameis. You hope that doesn't happen, but it's the situation we're in, we've got a ton of confidence in Fitz and it gets Ryan Griffin up as the two."
Griffin has just returned to the active roster after spending the first half of the season on injured reserve due to a shoulder injury. With Winston resting his own injured shoulder, Griffin will be active for a game for just the second time in his three years with the Buccaneers, and he has yet to throw a regular-season NFL pass. Of course, the team hopes that Fitzpatrick will take every snap and keep the offensive moving, and that will be more likely if Tampa Bay's running game finally gets on track. The Jets will try to stop that from happening, with 3-4 defensive ends Leonard Williams and Muhammad Wilkerson leading the charge.
"Running the football and stopping the run comes down to consistency, mostly – consistency when we're stopping the run in our tackling and our fits, and in the run game, consistency in getting on the right guys and maintaining our blocks and finishing," said Koetter. "The challenge is, [the Jets] are always going to load the box. They're not going to give you a good box count; you're always going to be short one. You've got to bring a wide receiver into the box somehow to run the football. And they're strong up the middle. They've got two stud, Pro Bowl-level defensive ends when they're in their 3-4 package, defensive tackles when they're in their nickel package in 92 and 96. They're both really exceptional."
Coincidentally, that last Buccaneer starter before Winston was Josh McCown, who is now leading the Jets' defense. McCown has completed more than 70% of his passes this year and is leading an offense that has taken an advantage of a lot of short fields thanks to 16 takeaways by the Jets' defense. McCown has also been supported by a solid trio of running backs in Matt Forte, Bilal Powell and Elijah McGuire, although Forte will not play on Sunday due to a knee injury.
"They're a real solid team," said Koetter. "They try to play physical in all phases, they play field position. They want to run the football and stop the run, and in games where they've done that, they've been in there. Two weeks ago they ran for 43 yards and got beat. Last week against Buffalo they ran for over 200 yards and won big. McCown is a lot like Ryan Fitzpatrick, a veteran quarterback who's going to make some plays. Our fans know about Josh and Josh has been around for a long time. The Jets are going to try to play field-position football and not beat themselves."
The Buccaneers will also play Sunday's game without their top receiver, Mike Evans, who is serving a one-game suspension. Evans does not currently count against the 53-man roster so he is not among the team's seven inactive players. Winston does, as do cornerback Robert McClain, center Joe Hawley, tackle Caleb Benenoch, tight end Antony Auclair, defensive end William Gholston and defensive tackle Sealver Siliga. Winston, McClain and Gholston are out due to injury.
In addition to Forte, the Jets have deactivated quarterback Christian Hackenberg, cornerback Robert Nelson, cornerback Derrick Jones, linebacker David Bass, LB Obum Gwacham and offensive lineman Jonotthan Harrison. Forte and Harrison are out due to injury.
The Buccaneers and Jets kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium in Tampa. The game will be televised regionally by CBS and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.