After a pair of intra-division NFC South games, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers head to Jacksonville in Week 13 for the first of three games against AFC South teams over the next four weekends. In Week 12, the Buccaneers hopped up to Atlanta and cooled off a red-hot Falcons team; their next trip is even shorter and it comes against a Jaguars team that is trying to stop the bleeding.
After hitting the season's midway point with a 4-4 record, riding consecutive wins over Cincinnati and the New York Jets, the Jaguars have since dropped three in a row to its three AFC South foes – Houston, Indianapolis and Tennessee – by a combined score of 101-36. Nick Foles, the Jaguars' big ticket replacement for Blake Bortles, finally returned from a broken collarbone he suffered in his Jacksonville regular-season debut two weeks ago and immediately replaced rookie sensation Gardner Minshew. Foles has thrown for 568 yards, three touchdowns and just one interception in his two games since returning but the Jaguars lost them both.
The Buccaneers are familiar with Foles, having faced him three times in the past with two different teams and watched him throw for 1,011 yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions in those three contests. Tampa Bay did win the most recent of those three meetings last year in a Week Two victory over the Eagles. Of course, much of the Buccaneers' current defense has very little history with Foles, particularly a young secondary that may have turned the corner last week in Atlanta. Though the Buccaneers are still ranked 31st in pass defense, they did break up an incredible 16 passes last week against Matt Ryan and the Falcons. Second-year man Carlton Davis and rookie Jamel Dean each had five passes defensed. Extra hours of game tape study have helped the young defensive backs better recognize and anticipate what opposing quarterbacks and pass-catchers are going to do.
Tampa Bay's offense is also coming off a strong outing in which Jameis Winston shook off two early interceptions to record his sixth straight 300-yard passing game in a 35-22 victory. Winston's favorite targets remain Mike Evans and Chris Godwin, the second and third-leading receivers in the NFL, both of whom zoomed past the 1,000-yard mark in last Sunday's win. The Buccaneers achieved play-calling balance in that win and got another nice game from emerging second-year back Ronald Jones, and that may be the focus again in Jacksonville. The Jaguars have defended the pass fairly well and have applied consistent pressure on the quarterback but they've had significant trouble stopping the run. Here's a closer look at some of the challenges and opportunities the Bucs will encounter when they take on their upstate rivals this weekend:
The Jaguars obviously expected Foles to be the main difference-maker in 2019 after giving him a lucrative deal in the offseason, and that could still be true down the stretch since his return from injury. Foles has a career TD-INT ratio of 71-34 and most notably guided the Eagles to victory in Super Bowl LII after an injury to Carson Wentz. Jacksonville's defense has fallen off a bit from its 2017 peak and no longer features such stars from that season as Telvin Smith, Jalen Ramsey and Malik Jackson. The Jaguars did reload a bit on their defensive front with the first-round selection of defensive end Josh Allen, and the rookie has already recorded eight sacks. Here are four specific Jaguars who could cause the Buccaneers trouble on Sunday:
1. RB Leonard Fournette. The Jaguars used the fourth-overall pick on the former LSU star in 2017 because he simply has a freaky mix of size (6-0, 228) speed and sheer power. Fournette won't necessarily string together a bunch of cuts and open-field moves, bug when the Jaguars give him a crease he hits it with gusto and can run past or over defenders. After seeing his rushing yardage drop from 1,040 as a rookie to just 439 last year – in large part because he missed eight games – Fournette has rebounded in a big way with 951 through 11 games this season, good for sixth in the NFL. It's not just the increased availability, though; Fournette averaged 3.3 yards per carry but is picking them up 4.6 yards at a time in 2019. Fournette gets 68.8% of his yards after contact, the third-highest rate in the league among qualifying rushers. The biggest change in Fournette's game in 2019, though, is in the passing attack. He is getting 6.4 targets per game, nearly double his career rate coming into this season, and that has translated into career highs in receptions (56) and receiving yards (391).
2. DE Yannick Ngakoue. Ngakoue was a third-round pick in 2016 but as an edge rusher he's performed like a first-rounder since Day one. The 6-2, 246-pound end has 35.5 sacks in 58 career games and he's been consistent from year to year, with 8.0 as a rookie, 12.0 in 2017, 9.5 last year and 6.0 through the first 11 games of 2019. Ngakoue doesn't play a power game or try to rush inside often but he's one of the better pass-rushers off the edge in the NFL. He's a hard-working, competitive player who is also good in backside pursuit on rushing plays. He's capable of sliding off blockers to hold his own in run defense, as evidenced by his 20 tackles on run plays this year. Opposing quarterbacks have to be careful with the football when Ngakoue gets near them in the backfield; he has three forced fumbles this year and 13 in his career, including an NFL-leading six in 2017. In 2018, Ngakoue had 33 quarterback hits, with only Fletcher Cox and NFL Defensive Player of the Year Aaron Donald recording more. Those numbers are down in 2019, with just eight QB hits for Ngakoue in 11 games, but he's still an every-down threat off the edge.
3. WR DJ Chark. The Jaguars went back to LSU for another offensive weapon in the 2018 draft, picking Chark towards the end of the second round. But they had also drafted Dede Westbrook and signed the undrafted Keelan Cole the year before and those two plus Donte Moncrief saw most of the wideout targets in Chark's rookie year. This season, Chark has emerged as the top threat in Jacksonville's aerial assault and he ranks 12th in the NFL with a team-high 833 receiving yards. The only NFL player with more than Chark's eight touchdown receptions through 12 weeks is Tampa Bay's Chris Godwin, who has nine. Chark has good size and length and excellent ball skills. He's not usually the fastest receiver on the field, but he has outstanding body control when the ball is in the air, so he can make catches that are contested or on the field's boundaries. Westbrook and Cole are still in the mix and Chris Conley arrived in 2019 as a free agent addition, but Chark leads all Jaguars receivers in targets with 91.
4. CB A.J. Bouye. Like Chark, Bouye is not the speediest player at his position but he is a very good all-around athlete. Like most of the league's top cornerbacks, he moves very smoothly with nimble feet, loose hips and overall quickness in his movements. Bouye is also smart and instinctive and he has better ball skills than the average cornerback. Bouye has just one pick and five passes defensed so far this season but his tight coverage often leads quarterbacks to look in another direction. Simply put, Bouye is one of the top pure cover, man-to-man cornerbacks in the league and the Jaguars will surely use him to try to shut down either Godwin or Mike Evans.
View some of the best photos from the Buccaneers' Week 12 matchup against the Atlanta Falcons.
Jacksonville has been able to move the ball most of the season, with a balanced attack that ranks 10th in the league in rushing yards, 14th in passing yards and 11th overall. Though it has not translated into a high point total (the Jaguars are 26th in scoring), that's largely due to red zone issue (see below). On defense, Jacksonville is giving up 24.0 points per game but has done a very good of pressuring opposing quarterbacks with a 9.69% sacks-per-pass-play rate that ranks fifth in the league. Here are some more specific areas in which the Jaguars have done well through their first 11 games of the season:
· Jacksonville's kicking game has been nothing short of excellent in 2019. Placekicker Josh Lambo has been close to perfect, making 24 of his 25 field goal attempts, including all 17 from closer than 40 yards. He's also 13 of 14 on extra point tries. Meanwhile, punter Logan Cookie has made a difference in field position with a 43.8-yard net punting average that ranks second in the NFL. Jacksonville's cover teams have helped, holding opposing returners to 4.7 yards per punt return.
· Did we mention that Leonard Fournette is a powerful runner who makes the most of a small crease? That's the main reason that Jacksonville's rushing attack is one of the best in the league at ripping off medium-sized chunks of yardage. Of the 279 rushing attempts the Jaguars have made, 39 have gone for at least 10 yards. That's 14.0% of all their runs which is the third-highest average in the NFL.
· Beware D.J. Chark and Chris Conley streaking down the right sideline, specifically. So far this year the Jaguars have thrown 29 passes that have been classified as deep balls on the right side, and completed 16 of them for 247 yards. That's a 51.7% completion rate on such passes, which is the best in the NFL, and an average of 15.41 yards per completion, which ranks third in the league.
· Meanwhile, the Jacksonville defense has defended the deep ball well. Opposing teams have thrown 40 passes against them that have traveled more than 20 yards downfield through the air and completed just 32.5% of them, with only one touchdown. The Jaguars' passer rating allowed of 62.2 on such passes is the ninth-best in the league.
Jacksonville's biggest problem on offense has been an inability to get the last few yards on potential scoring opportunities. The Jaguars have turned just 38.7% of their red zone incursions into touchdowns, which is the fifth-worst mark in the NFL. The main issue on defense for Jacksonville is stopping the run game; the Jaguars have allowed a league-high 5.4 yards per carry while giving up 142.3 yards per contest, the fourth-worst mark in the league. In addition:
· To be more specific about the Jaguars' red zone issues, their offense has the lowest percentage of "successful plays" in the NFL in that part of the field. A successful play is defined as a first-down play that gets at least four yards, a second-down play that gets at least half of the distance needed for a first down and a third-down play that gains a first down. The Jaguars' red zone plays have only succeeded 35.4% of the time, and they are below average on all three downs. Jacksonville has a success rate of 30.8% on first down (league average: 45.2%), 40.0% on second down (league average: 52.4%) and 34.6% on third down (league average: 38.4%).
· Jaguar opponents have converted 39.5 of their third-down tries, which is not too bad given that the Jaguars routinely give up big chunks of yardage on first down. Jacksonville has allowed 6.5 yards per play on first down this season; only Oakland and Green Bay have been worse. That includes a league-high nine plays allowed of more than 40 yards.
· As good as the duo of Lambo and Cooke has been, Cooke's work on kickoffs has come up a little short. Specifically, Jacksonville's kickoffs travel an average of 58.6 yards in the air, which is the second-shortest mark in the NFL. The Jaguars have forced touchbacks on just 59.2% of their kickoffs, which is below the league average.
· Foles and Minshew have combined to throw only five interceptions and the Jaguars are at exactly even on the turnover ratio chart. However, they have had a little trouble with loose balls, fumbling 16 times and losing nine of them. Those nine lost fumbles are tied for the sixth-most in the league.
NEW FACES IN 2019
As noted above, the Jaguars boosted their pass-rush by selecting Kentucky's Allen seventh overall, but the second round also brought in an instant starter on the other side of the line. Obviously, Foles was another huge import, and the Jaguars found him some added help in free agency and the draft.
1. T Jawaan Taylor. Taylor was considered a potential first-round pick but the Jags were able to nab him 35th overall when he slipped into the second round. Taylor has started all 11 games at right tackle and has helped Fournette bounce back in a big way after some struggles in an injury-plagued 2018 campaign.
2. WR Chris Conley. Chark has been the breakout player in Jacksonville's passing game in 2019 but Conley has proved to be a quality addition in unrestricted free agency, as well. Conley starts opposite Chark and has already set a new personal high with 568 receiving yards. The former Chief has gotten a lot more out of his catches this year, averaging 17.2 yards per grab after getting just 10.4 per catch in 2018.
3. TE Nick O'Leary. O'Leary started the season with Miami but was released at the end of October. That worked out for the Jaguars, who continue to have injury problems at the tight end position, and they signed him just last week. O'Leary started in his first game as a Jaguar last weekend and instantly contributed four catches for 36 yards.
1. CB Jalen Ramsey. While Bouye remains a big challenge for Buccaneer pass-catchers, they won't have to face the other star corner Jacksonville's defense previously featured. Ramsey got the exit from Jacksonville he wanted on October 15 when he was traded to the L.A. Rams.
2. LB Najee Goode. On Tuesday, Goode became the 14th player moved to the Jaguars' injured reserve list. The former Buccaneer was one of Jacksonville's top special teams performers and he had also contributed 24 tackles, one sack and six pass break-ups on defense.
3. TE Seth DeValve. Jacksonville has already put three tight ends on injured reserve this year in Geoff Swaim, James O'Shaughnessy and third-round draft pick Josh Oliver. That led to the claim of DeValve when he was waived by the Browns at the end of the preseason. DeValve doesn't have big offensive numbers (six catches for 68 yards) but he was the starter for most of the first half of the season before suffering an oblique injury. He has missed the last two games.