The Tampa Bay Buccaneers won last week to snap a five-game losing streak. Now they head to Miami to face a Dolphins team that has followed up a three-game run of victories with three straight losses. The Buccaneers hope to keep both teams pointed in their current directions.
"There are multiple examples this year that are streaking in one direction or another," said Buccaneers Head Coach Dirk Koetter. "We were one of those teams; hopefully we can start a streak going the other way."
Koetter's Buccaneers went on a second-half tear a year ago, fueled by a dramatic turnaround in their defensive results. A dominant defensive effort in last Sunday's 15-10 win over the New York Jets naturally raises thoughts of a similar turn in 2017. Most notably, Tampa Bay finally found its missing pass-rush, sacking Jets quarterback Josh McCown six times and hitting him 15 times, though Koetter considers that a product of the entire team's effort, not just good play by the defensive line.
"The fact that you had six different guys get sacks, I think that's a confidence boost for everybody," he said. "More than anything, what you build on is, you point out, 'Look what happens when we play with the lead instead of playing from two scores behind the whole fourth quarter.' It makes the other team abandon their game plan and then they have to get into a little bit of a desperate mode and abandon their running game. Now your pass-rushers get a chance to tee off a little bit more."
The Buccaneers' offense wasn't quite as prolific last Sunday with Ryan Fitzpatrick at the helm, but Koetter only cared about the final numbers on the scoreboard. Fitzpatrick will start again in Miami with Jameis Winston still resting an injured shoulder, and it will be his 118th career start and his 11th meeting with the Dolphins. Fitzpatrick intends to do more with the Buccaneers' wide array of offensive weapons in his second start, but Koetter will once again be happy with any numbers that help produce a victory.
"I like the fact that we won," said Koetter of Fitzpatrick's first Buccaneer start. "All the other stuff we talk about all week is really secondary to that. Sure, we can pick everything apart – and we do, believe me – but the bottom line is you either win or you lose, and we won."
The Dolphins are coming off a 45-14 Monday night loss to Carolina and have allowed 27 or more points in each of their last four games. Prior to that, however, they had the league's third-best scoring defense through six weeks. Koetter sees a tough defense on game tape despite its recent struggles.
"They've been a strong team on defense, strong in the front, strong in the secondary," he said. "They just got T.J. McDonald back off suspension last week. Ndamukong is one of the better three-techniques in the league, one of the top three or four defensive interior line. Cameron Wake is an older guy but has had an incredible career as a pass-rusher and has six-and-a-half sacks this year. A team that's strong in the front, solid in the secondary, and we know they're in the same desperate type mode as we are, so it should be a heck of a game."
The Dolphins' offense is last in the NFL in per-game scoring but has had to deal with the loss of starting quarterback Ryan Tannehill to a preseason injury. In addition, lead back Jay Ajayi was traded to Philadelphia at the deadline and the Dolphins have had some recent injury misfortune along the offensive line. Taking over for Tannehill has been veteran Jay Cutler, who was talked out of retirement by Head Coach Adam Gase, his former offensive coordinator in Chicago. Koetter and the Bucs' staff know Cutler well.
"Defensive coaches keep a notebook on every quarterback they face, and we certainly have one on Cutler," said Koetter. "What we know about him, though, is he can be red-hot or he can also throw a few to the other team. He's done a lot better job of cutting down his turnovers this year. He has an unbelievably strong arm. He can be stepping in the bucket and put that ball 45, 50 yards down the field. And they have a strong wide receiver group led by Jarvis Landry, one of the better players in the league, second in the league in catches, second in the league in yards after the catch. They're a dangerous team from a wide receiver-standpoint, with a dangerous quarterback."
Pictures of the Buccaneers leaving team facilities for their matchup against the Dolphins.
The Bucs will face Cutler and those receivers without cornerback Vernon Hargreaves, who is out due to a hamstring injury. The team gets Robert McClain back from injury, however, with him joining Brent Grimes and Ryan Smith as the top three corners. Hargreaves is one of three Tampa Bay players currently sidelined by injuries, joining Winston and defensive end Will Gholston. Notably, this would have been the Buccaneers' bye week if not for Hurricane Irma causing the Week One trip to Miami to be rescheduled. Overall, though, the roster is in pretty good shape in terms of health.
"You're going to have that every season," said Koetter of certain positions being thinned by injuries. "If you look at Friday's injury report we have three guys ruled out and then everybody else on our team is ready to go. That's really pretty amazing. Now, the fact that we have had to rotate guys in and out in the secondary, at defensive end, whatever position it is – it's the secondary right now – it's unfortunate in the short term but it does force you to build your depth. And a guy like Ryan Smith has benefited from that because he's gotten some experience and he's put two pretty good games together back to back."
In addition to Gholston, Hargreaves and Winston, the Buccaneers declared four more players inactive: tackle Caleb Benenoch, center Joe Hawley, defensive tackle Sealver Siliga and tight end Luke Stocker. Rookie tight end Antony Auclair is active for just the second time this season. The Buccaneers also made a roster move on Friday, waiving Bernard Reedy and promoting wide receiver Freddie Martino. That means the team will have at least one new return man this week, as Reedy had previously handled all of the returns on both punts and kickoffs.
Miami deactivated the following seven players, none of them due to injury: quarterback David Fales, cornerback/safety Jordan Lucas, cornerback Torry McTyer, guard Isaac Asiata, tackle Zach Sterup, wide receiver Leonte Carroo and running back De'Veon Smith. Smith was just signed to the active roster on Saturday after the team released linebacker Rey Maualuga. Maualuga had been starting at middle linebacker for the Dolphins; rookie Chase Allen steps into that spot against the Buccaneers.
The Buccaneers and Dolphins kick off at 1:00 p.m. ET at Hard Rock Stadium in Miami Gardens, Florida. The game will be televised regionally by FOX and broadcast by the Buccaneers Radio Network and its flagship station 97.9 FM, 98ROCK.