The Tampa Bay Buccaneers have ridden a two-game road winning streak back home, and if they want to extend that success to Raymond James Stadium they will likely need to stick with the current formula: Run the ball well and win the turnover battle.
Complicating matters is the Buccaneers' third home opponent of 2016, the Oakland Raiders, who have already won four road games of their own and are in possession of the same winning formula. With a powerful offensive line and a ball-hawking defense, the Raiders have raced out to a 5-2 start overall.
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"They've done great on the road," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter of the Raiders. "I mean four road wins and we're not even to the halfway point – that's huge. What they've done well is, they haven't turned it over with their offense and their defense has done a good job of taking it away. They're very, very explosive and their wide receivers and they got the big running back [Latavius Murray] back last week against Jacksonville. They're going to be similar to us, they're going to make you stop that big running back and then they're going to try to play-action it and throw it to the wideouts."
The Raiders have spread the handoffs around between Murray and a pair of rookies, DeAndre Washington and Jalen Richard, to the tune of 114.9 rushing yards per game and 4.9 yards per carry. That has indeed helped third-year QB Derek Carr get off to a superb start, complete with a 13-3 TD-INT ratio. Tampa Bay's defense, however, has allowed just 14 points per game during the two-game winning streak and is starting to get some key players back from the injury list. After securing just two takeaways in the first four games, the Bucs have forced seven of them in the last two.
"Our D's playing hard all the time," said Koetter. "Whether it's good or not so good, they're playing hard. They're trying to do it the way our defensive staff is coaching them. Love their effort. They're trying to execute the game plan each week, they're trying to take the ball away. We always have things throughout our football team that we need to do better, but our guys are playing complementary football. Our offense is trying not to put our defense in bad spots and our defense is trying to get the ball back and put our offense in a good spot. The special teams know that they've either got to flip the field when we punt it our try to set up a nice return when they kick it to us."
Pro Bowl defensive tackle Gerald McCoy was one of those key players the Buccaneers got back into the mix last week, and he'll be joined on Sunday by defensive end Robert Ayers, who has missed the last four outings. McCoy made an instant impact upon his return, not only with a sack and a fumble recovery but also by opening up pass-rush opportunities for his fellow linemen.
"The coaches voted to give him the defensive game ball, so that should tell you something about how he played," said Koetter. "The fact that Gerald always requires a double-team, that's going to free other guys up. He's a disruptive rusher. If you single-block him, he's tough to stop. You put a Pro Bowl player back in your lineup, it's going to make everyone better. Robert's going to be good to go, so it's great to have him back."
As Koetter mentioned, the Buccaneers' offense has helped the defense find its footing by mostly eliminating the turnover troubles that had plagued it during the first quarter of the season. A major reason for that improvement has been the ability to field a balanced attack thanks to the hard running of fill-in running back Jacquizz Rodgers. Rodgers has carried the ball 56 times for 255 yards in the last two game, and he's had plenty of help.
"The running game is a team effort," said Koetter. "Obviously the running backs get the stats because they carry the ball, but that starts Jameis getting us in the right play; obviously the O-Line establishing the line of scrimmage and getting to the second level; and then our tight ends and our wideouts controlling the perimeter. We work hard on our running game, we take pride in our running game. We say we're a run-first football team. Jacquizz has come in…I've said many times he has similar characteristics to Doug Martin. Peyton and Antone [Smith] have been a nice little complement."
Martin will miss his fifth straight game due to a hamstring injury, and starting defensive tackle Clinton McDonald also remains out due to the same ailment. The Bucs' other five game-day inactives are QB Ryan Griffin, CB Johnthan Banks, G Leonard Wester, DE Channing Ward and G Caleb Benenoch.
The Raiders will be without starting defensive tackle Stacy McGee, the team's second leading producer of sacks. Right tackle Menelik Watson will miss his fifth consecutive game due to a calf injury and will be replaced in the lineup by Austin Howard. The Raiders' other five inactive players are QB Connor Cook, CB Dexter McDonald, CB Antonio Hamilton, T Matt McCants and TE Ryan O'Malley.
The Buccaneers take on the Raiders in Week Eight on Sunday, with kickoff scheduled for 1:00 p.m. ET at Raymond James Stadium. The game will be broadcast locally by CBS and on radio through the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station, US 103.5 FM.